Christopher J. Ferguson
Christopher J. Ferguson Former United States Astronaut, NASA
I would love to go back to the moon. I think that to go back to the moon for a period of six months and prove that we, as a species, can survive on an extraterrestrial body, I think, is a huge milestone that we need to prove to ourselves that we're capable of.
We do a lot of training as astronauts. We call it expeditionary behavior. The great expeditionaries of the previous centuries -- Shackleton, you know, I look at Shackleton's expedition to the South Pole. Even though it was unsuccessful, the ability of this band of people to survive in the most austere conditions, using the resources that were around them to preserve their life and ultimately return back to their home, is really kind of that -- what we're trying to capture.
To go back to the moon and derive from the moon's resources our ability to sustain humankind for an indefinite period of time, to me, is the consummate idea behind exploration. I would love to see us go do that someday.
Can we do it on an asteroid? Perhaps -- I think an asteroid's a little less hospitable, but still possible nonetheless. Can we go to a Martian moon? Perhaps -- Mars, of course, would be ideal, but it would sure be nice to be able to demonstrate this capability to ourselves a mere quarter of a million miles away rather than wandering out there 160 million miles away.
A moon base would provide humans with an operational headquarters for experimentation, industry, lunar exploration and further exploration of the solar system. Even if the base remained unoccupied for long stretches of time, it could reduce the amount of equipment needed to stage a successful lunar mission and ensure a longer stay for visiting astronauts. Permanent manned lunar colonies would expand on these objectives, providing humans with an excellent stepping-stone to wider space exploration and prompting new scientific and technological breakthroughs.
One major advantage of a moon base is that it would make it much easier to launch spacecraft that could then explore the solar system or become satellites of Earth. When spacecraft are launched from Earth, it takes a tremendous amount of force to propel their mass out of our atmosphere and into space -- a huge portion of the fuel a spacecraft consumes is used simply in the initial Earth-escape portion of the journey. The Earth has a fairly strong gravitational field, and (less importantly) it has an atmosphere that provides friction and resistance. The moon has no atmosphere, and its gravitational pull is about one-sixth that of the Earth [source: NASA]. That means that if we were to launch a spacecraft from the Moon, it would take roughly one-sixth of the force required to launch the same spacecraft from the Earth.
Another potential benefit of a lunar base would be geological -- we could mine the Moon for important resources. For example, an isotope of helium known as helium-3 is believed by many to be the key to facilitating the fusion power reactors of the future. While this news is exciting, we would have to go to the surface of the Moon to find the amounts of helium-3 needed for realistic fusion energy production [source: Williams]. A lunar base could lay the groundwork for a large-scale helium-3 mining operation, and thus for the advent of fusion power.
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