I discovered this article this morning via CNN.com, of all places, and not my usual science websites. The article intrigued me for a few reasons, some of which I feel are very important to the future of both energy physics and space exploration (but for me, primarily the latter).
The moon has not been visited directly by a human being for a long time now, and there has been very good reason for that: It’s plain old unnecessary from a scientific standpoint. Back in 1969, before the digital age, there were many things that the first moon landers did on the moon that human beings needed to be there for. Also, of course, no one had done it yet, and so there were experiments to be run on the effects of the moon itself on humans themselves. That was important, and we learned a ton (and got moon rocks! I got to hold one once…it felt like a normal rock, but I found that just the knowledge that the rock came from the moon made it a very powerful and memorable experience).
But since that time, sending actual humans to the moon for scientific experiments has become completely unnecessary. Nowadays, there is barely anything that a human can do that we can’t achieve with a robotic probe of some sort. This has been the nature of space exploration for the last several decades: robots! It is more efficient, more cost-effective (I’m fairly sure…if anyone has data on this, that would be helpful), and certainly safer from a human life point of view (obviously).
The other thing about the moon is that there’s not really a ton we need to know about it that requires us going back there. It’s largely a hunk of rock made up of the same type of material as the Earth’s mantle (hence the leading theory that the moon was broken off of the forming Earth by a large impact during the solar system’s infancy). So that’s that.
And then I read this article, and I go “WOW!” So the moon has THAT much 3He, when the Earth has THAT little of it??? Now THAT’S useful! Nuclear Fusion is the future of practical and applicable nuclear science all together, and I had no idea that the ability to experiment in this field has become so expensive and difficult (damn you, money!). If they are ever going to get more energy out of Fusion that they put in, they will need to keep going, and this goal is noble: No meltdown possibility, no real direct weapons applications as a result of the fusion process, and, most importantly, NO RADIOACTIVE WASTE. We need this, if we want to keep going with nuclear research.
And now we have a readily available source of one of the main ingredients of the fusion process, yet it’s incredible inaccessible at the moment. Is it possible or practical to go to the moon to harvest 3He? It seems like no for the foreseeable future. Yet the scientific impulse to do so might be growing rapidly enough—hopefully right along with the private sector’s entry into the space world—that maybe this will become a possibility sooner than humanity expects.
Especially if people are really considering sending people back to the moon. NOW there’s a real reason to establish a base there, if it makes economic sense. I personally don’t believe that establishing a base on the on the moon for the sole purpose of eventually sending humans to Mars is necessary or scientifically efficient CURRENTLY, but if we now have a second reason for doing so that is more valid, then the secondary function of a stepping stone to Mars is totally fine—and quite exciting! Don’t get me wrong, I think visiting Mars in person would be amazing and awesome, but it’s just not scientifically prudent yet. And considering our planet’s resources and economic status, prudence needs to win out.
Lastly, I do not agree that America is “behind” in the race to return to the moon. Even though this is said by an astronaut in the article, I think his perspective is entirely off. The reason why America is not in front in the race to return to the moon is because we’re not trying to return to the moon. And the reason for this is that we’re so far ahead of anyone else we’re already surpassed the need to go to the moon. Why does China want to go to to moon? It’s a waste of resources for them, and scientifically speaking it’s not worth it to spend the resources to do that when it’s not going to gain us much value. But that’s Communist China for you, I guess…it’s too much for them to join the actual scientific community of the rest of the world, with NASA and the European Space Agency, to join up and contribute to something worthwhile.
Ahem…but yeah, anyway, America hasn’t needed to return to the moon, but maybe now there’s a good reason to rethink that idea. Unless, of course, you can still mine 3He with robots and not need to send people there. The one advantage that humans would have over robots is sustainability; if a robot breaks or runs out of energy, it’s done. As long as humans have food and air, they can stay there indefinitely. And in a mining/shipping operation, that’s clearly a necessary advantage. So we’ll see what happens…probably nothing will change for a long time, but here’s to hoping.