Return to the Moon

Should we go back to the Moon first or go straight to Mars? That question has been debated for years and continues to be discussed when trying to determine where we go next away from low Earth orbit. We have been to the Moon before, so it is to an extent familiar territory, but the last Apollo landed 40 years ago. So much has changed since we first stepped on to the lunar surface that returning will be almost like starting over again. A return to the Moon had been debated even before the final journeys of Apollo were completed, and many more times since we stopped going there in 1972.

Curiosity rover on Mars pioneers geological sampling.

Clearly NASA would love to return to the Moon, and soon. Russia never made it in the 1960s so to do so in the near future would give mixed emotions to those still alive who participated in the program to beat the Americans to the surface 50 years ago. It would hurt that they could not have done it sooner, but equally would give them pride that they had finally made it. And then there are the Chinese, who clearly have the Moon in their sights. But why go back?

Proving that it can be done again is one argument, but in this current global climate more is needed than national pride and technological achievement. It did not sustain a long-term program last time, so why would it do so now? Other reasons, such as a scientific research base, mining potential, a remote simulation facility for other extraterrestrial explorations deeper into space, an extensive Earth

observation platform, a medical isolation facility for those returning from distant targets, or a launching site for interplanetary probes have all been suggested and all have their merits and disadvantages.

No one really thought it would be so long before we considered going back but the argument remains the same: Why should we return, where on the surface – should we aim our seventh landing crew, and for what purpose? Would it be to support other programs or for definite objectives of its own?

What is clear though is that, being the closest celestial neighbor, the Moon will surely not be ignored in our expansion beyond low Earth orbit? Even if we initially fly past it on the way to somewhere else, we will return. The overriding questions of a sustained human return to the Moon are the same as they were in 1972—those of when, where, how, and most importantly why. The added question today is also who?