November 22, 2022
Today’s NY Times feed featured the pass by of the Orion capsule of the moon yesterday. NASA’s uncrewed Orion spacecraft dipped as close as 81 miles above the surface, marking the return to our closest neighbor since Gene Cernan climbed back into his lunar module on Dec. 14, 1972. The feed stated that now there is a sustained commitment to going back. For 20 years after Apollo the moon was, “been there, done that”, and the moon was not that interesting. That changed in the 1990’s when people started thinking there might be water-ice on the moon. If there is water on the moon, you can split off the hydrogen and make rocket fuel, avoiding the cost of lifting heavy rocket fuel off the Earth. That was when people started getting interested in the moon again.
When I looked online, I found diffused water molecules can persist at the Moon’s sunlit surface, as discovered by NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) airborne observatory in 2020. Water vapor is gradually decomposed by sunlight, leaving hydrogen and oxygen lost to space. Scientists also found water ice in the cold, permanently shadowed craters at the Moon’s poles, and water molecules are present in the thin lunar atmosphere. Water (H2O), and the chemically related hydroxyl group (-OH), exist chemically bound as hydrates and hydroxides to lunar minerals (not as free water), and evidence strongly suggests low concentrations exist for much of the Moon’s surface. Water may have been delivered to the Moon over geological timescales by the regular bombardment of water-bearing comets, asteroids, and meteoroids, or produced in situ by the hydrogen ions (protons) of the solar wind impacting oxygen-bearing minerals. Water is essential for making long-term lunar habitation feasible.
Kenneth Chang covers the space program for The Times and explained why it has taken so long to get back. The US has tried at least two other times. Logistically it takes about 10 years to plan, rebuild, and complete the mission. Each new administration wanted to have its stamp on space policy, and any previous attempt was cut from the budget. That changed during the last two administrations as each basically continued what was already going on. The latest uncrewed launch is designed to test the SLS rockets, and the Orien craft itself. While there have been small glitches, so far NASA has figured a work around. The final test will come with the heat shield. The craft will return at a high velocity, and they want to verify the shield survives re-entry. The Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it entered the atmosphere on February 1, 2003, due to damage that allowed the heat shield to be penetrated. Burning up on reentry is not an option.
THOUGHTS: One of the key drivers of the USA’s quest to land people on the Moon was a sense of competition with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union poured money and expertise into their space program in the 1950’s and achieved several amazing fists. By the early 1960’s it seemed the Soviets were going to be the first nation to land someone on the moon. The Cold War was in full gear and the potential technological and strategic advantages the moon was a concern. When the Cold War conditions ceased in the 1990’s the US lost their main rival, one of the key reasons for going to the moon. Apparently, academic knowledge is not as important as military superiority and the programs stopped. The knowledge required to get to the moon resulted in the technology we now take for granted. The knowledge for habitation of the moon will result in a similar technological advance, and the global cooperation being formed has the potential to unite humanity. We need to get beyond the quest for military superiority. Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.