If the idea of sending probes, rovers, and people back to the moon is old hat, you wouldn't know it in Tokyo or Los Angeles.
On Friday, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched a $479-million spacecraft toward the moon. A day earlier, Google and the X-Prize Foundation announced in L.A. a $30 million purse aimed at getting the fledgling alternative spaceflight industry into the lunar act.
Despite a "been-there, done-that" attitude toward lunar exploration among a large proportion of the public, the efforts are the latest in a string of moonstruck projects in the US and overseas since the turn of the millennium.
Nearly 40 years after Neil Armstrong took one small step for man, several high-profile initiatives once again aim to lay the foundation for mankind's return to the moon – an objective President Bush established for the US in 2004. His goal: Put fresh US bootprints on the lunar surface no later than 2020. For its part, Japan's mission, originally slated to launch four years ago, represents the country's attempt to master technologies that will give it valuable chits to bring to the table for future lunar activities, either its own or cooperative projects with other countries, analysts say.
"For nations or for private ventures, the notion of being able to get off the Earth and conduct activities in the solar system – whether it's human settlement, exploration, or economic and technological development – means that you need the challenges of going to another place. The moon is that first place," says Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif.
Big plans for moon ventures
The grand ambitions have the money and tech savvy to back them up. Japan's project includes an orbiter "mother ship" that will release two smaller satellites – a combination of hardware that the Japanese have billed as the most complicated package of sensors humans have sent to the moon since the US Apollo program, the last one to send astronauts there in 1972.
Of the $30 million in the Google/X-Prize awards, some $20 million will go to the first group that can land and operate a rover on the moon's surface by the end of 2012. The winner can pick up an extra $5 million for exceeding the contest objectives in specific ways.
Moreover, the new prize constitutes a recognition on the part of a new generation of private-sector engineers and entrepreneurs that 35 years after Apollo, the moon is a target they can try to reach as well, says Roger Launius, former NASA historian and now curator at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum in Washington. These people "may not buy into the vision for space exploration as the president outlined it," he says, but they see "there might be ways we can do this on the cheap and create some excitement as well."
The value of trying to generate excitement shouldn't be underestimated. Dr. Friedman notes that a return to the moon carries some serious "been-there, done-that" baggage. He recalls attending an international lunar conference in Beijing last year that drew a large number of students, as well as scientists and engineers. "The students worked over one of the scientists: 'Why should we do this? The United States did it 30 years ago. What are we going to learn that they didn't?' There was a lot of pushing on that subject," he says.
Other space-exploration advocates have expressed similar sentiments. For instance, Robert Zubrin, who heads the Mars Society, has long argued that the next step for human exploration should be Mars – not the moon – and that the technology is in hand to accomplish at least an initial manned mission to the red planet.
Yet if one thinks of the moon as a stepping stone, rather than a final destination, it has a lot going for it, others argue. It's close, so if something goes wrong – à la Apollo 13 – in principle, you're only a few days' travel from home. Thus, it's a good place to develop approaches to living and working on an inhospitable orb.
And as far as scientific discovery is concerned, the moon is anything but passé. Scientists have outlined an ambitious set of questions about the moon's structure and history whose answers can shed light on a range of puzzles regarding the Earth-moon system and the solar system as a whole. And the moon may be able to host a range of telescopes or other observing systems that can peer at the cosmos or keep tabs on planet-scale environmental changes on Earth. The National Academy of Sciences' Space Science Board outlined a range of these objectives and suggests pathways for reaching them in a report it released earlier this year.
For now, one major step forward would be to get spacefaring nations with an interest in lunar exploration rowing together in a coordinated fashion.
In addition to the mission Japan has just launched, China is expected to loft a lunar orbiter this fall followed by an Indian orbiter next April and the US Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter later next year. The Europeans, whose SMART-1 mission to the moon ended last year after three years of gathering data and testing technologies, also aim to put astronauts on the moon by the end of the next decade. The Space Science Board has recommended that NASA strengthen its links to these and other international lunar exploration programs to avoid duplication – particularly in unmanned missions – as much as possible.
The panel has also asked the space agency to do what it can to stimulate lunar studies on Earth and help develop the tools that can make sense of the torrent of data these and other missions are expected to unleash.