Making the Giant Leap to the Moon, Again The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, slated for launch in two years, will look for landing sites in preparation for sending humans to the moon. Why do scientists spend so much time and effort studying the moon, and do humans really need to return there?
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Making the Giant Leap to the Moon, Again

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Making the Giant Leap to the Moon, Again

Making the Giant Leap to the Moon, Again

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next: the moon. The moon's going to be a busy place in the coming years. Four countries will send spacecraft to our orbiting neighbor - first China, then India, Japan, and then the U.S. The U.S. mission, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, is slated to launch in 2008, and as its name suggests, one of its goals is to survey the surface and help find a suitable spot to land astronauts, or if the Chinese get there first - taikonauts.

After an absence of 34 years and counting, there is a renewed interest in going back to the moon, a place no person has set foot since Gene Cernan left the last boot mark in 1972. Of course, if you're like Arthur C. Clarke, you marvel at one of the greatest mysteries about the moon: how people could have gone there and never have returned. But there's another story - that's another story and we're not going to talk about that - and perhaps that's about to change in a decade or two. So for the rest of the hour we're going to be talking about these upcoming moon missions, how they'll help accomplish the goal of sending people back to the moon, and then we're going to talk about the vehicle selected by NASA - just selected - that has been chosen to take astronauts to the moon.

So if you'd like to talk about returning to the moon - please - our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And as always, you can surf over to our Web site at

David Paige is an associate professor of Planetary Science at the University of California at Los Angeles. He's also the principal investigator for the Divine Lunar Radiometer Experiment, slated to fly on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission in 2008. And Dr. Paige joins us today from his office at UCLA. Welcome to the program.

Professor DAVID PAIGE (UCLA): Thanks, Ira. It's a pleasure to talk to you and to the nation.

FLATOW: Thank you. Let's talk about this European Smart 1 probe first that crash-landed on the moon this week. It was a planned crash, was it not?

Prof. PAIGE: Yeah. It turns out that most of the orbiters that are sent to the moon end up crashing just because of the difficulties of the lunar gravity field and the fact that the Earth also influences it. It's sort of a little like the moth to the flame. Eventually all these orbiters crash.

FLATOW: And why - if they've all crashed, do we learn anything? This was intentionally set to crash, so we must do it and watch it, right?

Prof. PAIGE: Yeah, I think it's more sort of a - you know, sort of a fun thing to do, close out the mission rather than necessarily a scientific experiment, although people are planning scientific experiments, you know, dealing with crashing that may in fact yield some interesting information in the future.

FLATOW: Well, Lunar Prospector crashed back in 1999.

Prof. PAIGE: Right. And just about every other orbiter crashed as well.

FLATOW: So we've got a bunch of space junk littering the moonscape.

Prof. PAIGE: Yes, yes. We've been pretty prolific in that area.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Let's talk about the European mission. It's one of several moon missions in the works and it's an international affair. Tell us about some of the other missions that are planned.

Prof. PAIGE: Yeah. Well, we've got - the first to go will be China, who's planning on launching an orbiter in March of 2007. And then we have Japan and India, who are planning orbiter missions close on the heels of that mission. And that will be followed in late 2008 by the United States, who's going to be launching the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and another companion mission, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite.

FLATOW: Do all these missions have the pot at the end of the rainbow, to put people back on the moon, or just some of them?

Prof. PAIGE: Well, I think that if you look at the humanity as a whole, I think that's certainly an important goal, and each of these missions will contribute towards that goal in various ways. But the main purpose of all these missions is to, you know, survey the moon, find landing sites for future missions, as well as learn what we can about its origin and evolution.

FLATOW: The Chinese have stated openly that they have a schedule for putting people on the moon.

Prof. PAIGE: Yes, and so do the Russians, and now so do the Americans. So there's three potential human programs in the works in the next decade.

FLATOW: So we have another - actually a bigger space race than we had?

Prof. PAIGE: Yes, yes. It's sort of a mini-space race now with these robotic missions to the moon, and it will probably turn into, you know, something akin to a space race of sorts with the humans as well.

FLATOW: Now, if we've been there and done that - I mean, 30-odd years ago - why do we have to start all over again with sending these probes to the moon? Why don't we just, you know, pick up some of those Apollo rocket ships off the ground and send them? I'm speaking facetiously, of course. Why do we need to re-investigate?

Prof. PAIGE: Well, I think, you know, we ultimately have much larger goals than just planting a flag on the moon. If you look at, you know, what we're planning, we're thinking about, of course, having more of a human presence on the moon, more of a, you know, a base, an outpost. And this of course could be used to develop technologies we might use to go further out into the solar system, to Mars, for instance.

FLATOW: Will we be designing - will these probes have new kinds of rockets on them that will be tested for later use in the solar system?

Prof. PAIGE: Yeah. I mean, they'll have, you know, new technologies. You know, the '60s technology, of course, was great for its day, but we think we can do more with less as we go out into the future. And of course that's essential if we're ultimately going to make, you know, human activity out in space more practical and affordable.

FLATOW: Let's talk about your admission to the Lunar Reconnaissance orbiter that you're an investigator on.

Prof. PAIGE: Yes.

FLATOW: Tell us specifically what that mission is all about.

Prof. PAIGE: Well, the mission has two goals. The first is to sort of survey for new landing sites for future missions, and this will involve, you know, creating a detailed elevation map of the planet, taking high-quality and high-resolution images of potential landing sites and to map out its gravity field. We'll also search for evidence of frozen water at the lunar poles, and we include a neutron instrument, a radar, and an infrared mapper, which is the instrument that I'm working on.

FLATOW: And water is necessary if you're going to spend any time on the moon, right?

Prof. PAIGE: Well, it certainly...

FLATOW: Why take it along if you can find it there?

Prof. PAIGE: Ah. Well, this is the interesting trade-off. If you think of the economic value of any commodity - let's say oil, for instance - it's determined to a large extent by the price of alternatives. So if your alternative to getting water to the moon is to lug it all the way from the Earth, it could well be that, you know, extracting water from the lunar environment by various methods might turn out to be more cost effective. And in that context lunar water could be very valuable.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. William in Bakersfield, North Carolina. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

WILLIAM (Caller): How you doing? I have a question. I'll take the answer off the air. I was curious on why we have to send a lunar reconnaissance module to the moon to map this stuff out when in '69 we didn't have the technology to do that and they just landed right on the moon, you know, to survey the surface of the moon that way. Why would we have to forego and spend the money to do that when you just land right on there and survey just it? You know.

FLATOW: Right.

WILLIAM: A perfectly fair question. Well, yeah, we did learn a huge amount about the moon during the Apollo missions, but much of the, you know, activity was sort of concentrated on the near side of the moon, the part of the moon that we can see directly and communicate with directly from Earth. Those lunar missions only lasted for a couple of weeks because you're constrained to only land when the sun is shining during the day.

Remember, the lunar day lasts for a month, and so for extended human habitation we'll have to send, you know, people there that could survive both the day and the night, and multiple days and nights. And we need to learn more about the moon's properties just to accomplish that particular task.

But more broadly, the sites that were visited by Apollo aren't - we now know - completely representative of the moon as a whole. There are other places that may have enhanced resources at the high latitudes. In the polar regions in particular we may find regions that contain frozen ice, and we'd like to explore those and make the most out of our future exploration of the moon by learning something about it now.

FLATOW: Well, that seems to be a key difference. I mentioned the Arthur C. Clark comment about never going back. It seemed in the first space race of the '60s the idea was just to get there. Once we got there we had no idea what to do, any further than send some more people there. Are we talking about colonization here, other kinds of projects that these missions would serve as a basis for?

Prof. PAIGE: Yeah. I mean, you could imagine, you know, the entire, you know, steer of human activities gradually expanding out to space in the future. Most people think it's something that will eventually come, and the moon is an obvious first stepping stone to that type of endeavor. It is a planetary body. It's got a history. It's a tough, you know, technical job to send people there and have them survive. So it would make sense that the moon has become a key focus for this, you know, long-term forward-looking program.

FLATOW: And let's talk about somewhat the interest in these polar regions. Could there actually be reservoirs of ice - of water ice that could be either made perhaps into fuel to use the hydrogen or to use as drinking water?

Prof. PAIGE: Yeah, it's a very distinct possibility. The idea that there might be water cold-trapped at the high latitudes on the moon was first proposed in the early '60s. The Apollo mission learned a lot about the moon but only about the mid-latitude regions, where the landings were. Ice was discovered on the planet Mercury, believe it or not, which is the closest planet to the sun, at its poles, in the last decade through radar observation.

And we - there's a good circumstantial case for water at the lunar poles, but we don't have any, you know, absolute hard and fast evidence that it's there. And so one of the main purposes of many of these orbiter missions is to gather more data to help us answer that question.

FLATOW: Now, the orbiter is part of a larger research program, right? That's...

Prof. PAIGE: Yeah. There will be a series of robotic missions to the moon that will, you know, lead up to ultimately a human flight to the moon, at least within the U.S. program, roughly around 2020. And there'll be a series of missions to explore various aspects of the moon and these could include, you know, landers, rovers and all the various type of technology that we've developed during Apollo and post-Apollo.

FLATOW: Now, there is one thing that is out of your control as scientist and out of all the - you know, the scientists' control, and that's basically politics and budget. I mean, you know, one of the remarkable things about the mission in the '60s, the race into space, is it started with Kennedy, went through Johnson, Nixon. We had a bunch of different people who were on - who were with the program. At any one point someone could say we don't want to do this and just politically go or do something else.

Prof. PAIGE: Yeah. Well, you know, right now the moon is doing pretty well. President George W. Bush has enunciated a vision for, you know, solar system exploration, which includes, you know, a strong program to going in the moon, and that is what is propelling the program right now.

And you're right, the politics could change in the future. But you know, traditionally NASA in particular has done very well in an environment where this, you know, solid presidential direction for the program, and we're in an era right now where that's going on.

FLATOW: David Paige, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.

Prof. PAIGE: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Good luck. Have a good weekend. David Paige is Associate Professor of Planetary Science at the University of California, UCLA. He's also the principal investigator for the Divine Lunar Radiometer Experiment, slated to fly on the Lunar Recognizance Orbiter mission in 2008.

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