Why haven’t people been to the moon again?

Houston, the Eagle has landed,” came the voice from far away in the sky. It was July 20, 1969. Two men accomplished a feat that remains etched in history. Fifty years later, the world looks back at the giant leap humankind took to put people on the moon against several odds.

Between 1968 and 1972, 24 men — all US astronauts — have flown to the moon under the Apollo missions; among them, 12 set foot on its soil. NASA holds the solo record — yet untouched by any other nation — of having sent people to the moon.

After 1972, though, with this American victory in the Cold War Space Race, the Superpowers and the world lost interest in the moon, whereas it should have only grown. The lull continued for five decades. Still, the handful of robotic missions to our cosmic neighbour have revealed valuable insights: a geological potential that can be harnessed; proximity that offers scope for a space stopover, and a perfect spot for unhindered astronomical observations. So, despite a wealth of opportunities, why haven’t more people been to the moon?

History is rife with ambitious pursuits on earth writ with adventure and scaling impossible heights; the moon missions were a parallel drawn in the skies. 

Logically, the moon missions should have developed organically — first reaching near space, then establishing a space hub and then hopping over to the moon. Undoubtedly, the Apollo missions were ahead of their time, happening a mere eight years after Yuri Gagarin made a brief circumambulation of the earth.

The Apollo missions were Nasa’s aggressive response to realise John F Kennedy’s ambition to put people on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Precious lives, millions of dollars and uncertainty enveloped the series of missions to the moon.

In pre-preparation, several lunar probes were sent in succession to map the territory, collect valuable data and chalk out landing sites.   The missions took off to a shaky start, with the shocking disaster of Apollo 1. With lives lost and hefty prices paid, technical snags and aborted missions taught valuable lessons along the way.   In all, 17 Apollo missions went on the floors to realise the dream. In a span of four years, six crewed missions brought back 400 kilos of moon rock and samples, a wealth of data.

Despite such an aggressive and unmatched pursuit, moon missions came to a sudden halt. Policy experts say that after the Apollo missions, there appeared to be no scientific reason to go back to our cosmic companion. The world got busy exploring other parts of the solar system. Eugene Cernan, the last astronaut on the moon, in his book, says, “perhaps we needed to take some time out to figure out what we learned before taking the next step. As years passed, the aggressive spirit gave way to caution, to not wanting to attempt such missions unless success could be guaranteed.”

The water trails

At the turn of the century, interest in the moon rekindled when the US Lunar Prospector detected traces of water ice buried in the depths, bringing the world to focus on the moon again. Water is a primary pursuit of space missions, for survival and sustenance in space.

Again, in 2008, India’s Chandrayaan-1 detected evidence of water molecules in the cold traps of the south polar craters. Now, Chandrayaan 2 will carry the baton forward and explore deeper with its rover Pragyan.

It will be a critical turn of events if water is found. The world now envisions harnessing the moon’s mineral wealth, abundant solar energy and water ice to maximise the output from future lunar missions. Now, the plan is not just to visit or spend time on the moon, but to stay.

Money matters

Space ventures are costly. The considerable cost difference in manned and unmanned missions often deters the planning of crewed missions. Space policy experts say that present-day space funds are a fraction of what the Apollo missions received. Though large-scale budgets are assigned to space organisations, they get divided among several projects. Due to this, human activity has not gone beyond the International Space Station.

The upcoming US plan to build a Lunar Gateway, too, faces fiscal hurdles and hence will have limited crew quarters until moon resources are harnessed. With advanced technologies, it is increasingly becoming easier, cheaper and safer to put robots in space, rather than humans. However, it is in our bones to explore and venture out. Private investments are changing the economics considerably. With more money pouring into the space sector, people could soon be revisiting the moon.

Isro is a strong contender for crewed lunar missions. With its USP of indigenized, quality projects achieved on shoestring budgets, the agency will play a significant role in the coming decades.

Moon’s hospitality

The moon astronauts vividly describe the moonscape as dry, dusty and desert-like, with mountains and valleys, canyons, rilles and gulleys, ancient volcanoes and massive circular craters. Such a rough terrain poses nail-biting moments during the landing of spacecraft.

The moon is covered by fine dust called regolith that gets charged by solar winds. This dust tends to stick to surfaces with a magnetic force. Lunar regolith is a crucial consideration for missions, as a bumpy manoeuvre will cover the machine in a thick layer of grime in no time. Such stubborn deposits can cause critical functional errors in equipment, spacesuits and vision for the astronauts.

Another challenge is the moon’s weak gravity. Astronauts must navigate and work carefully on the moon, which can fatigue them quickly.

The moon lacks an atmosphere to shield the harsh rays of the sun, exposing the astronauts to high radiation levels. Over prolonged stays, these radiations are harmful to the people. Also, oxygen, heat, and power need to be harnessed from the available sources like water. Moreover, for extended stays, the astronauts must be suitably equipped to survive the freezing temperatures. Lunar nights are among the coldest zones in the solar system.

Technology is expected to circumvent these challenges before sending astronauts to the moon.

The Apollo missions were carefully planned for short durations, avoiding the frigid nights and landing the men at the dawn of the lunar day.

With these constraints in mind, crewed missions were discouraged for a long time. However, the moon is back in focus with the Lunar Gateway and the ‘Moon to Mars’ projects. The abundant mineral resources on the moon is a lucrative option for space commerce and the building of habitats.

The coming decades will see people going back to the moon. This time around, it will be all prepped up to receive us.

(The author is a freelance science writer)

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