A 10-foot-long moon buggy is parked in the Taurus-Littrow Valley, roughly 239,000 miles from Earth. Nobody has driven this lunar rover in the past 31 years, but because the Moon has no liquid water and only the thinnest of atmospheres, the vehicle is probably as good as new—a set of fresh batteries would get it running again.
The rover isn’t the only thing the last two men on the Moon—Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt—left behind when they departed on December 14, 1972. They also said good-bye to a lunar descent module, a flag, antennas, spacesuits and boots, cameras, tools, filters, food packages, urine bags, defecation collection devices and other items not needed for the return trip to Earth. The footprints and tire tracks Cernan and Schmitt left in the dust during their three-day visit are almost certainly still there, and expected to last at least another million years.
It’s as though time has stood still on the Moon—and also in the human space exploration program. “In the past 30 years, no human being has set foot on another world or ventured farther up into space than 386 miles, roughly the distance from Washington, D.C., to Boston, Massachusetts,” President George W. Bush said in announcing a major U.S. space initiative on January 14. Soon, though, he vowed, humans will head “into the cosmos”; his new space policy calls for sending astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. Exactly how they will get there remains to be seen, but many experts agree on one thing: Like those footprints on the Moon, the technology of human spaceflight has changed surprisingly little in 30 years. Improvements in materials, electronics and solar power have made spacecraft lighter, smarter and more energy efficient than in the Apollo days, but with few major advances in propulsion technology since the advent of chemical rocket engines powered by cryogenic liquid fuels, human spaceflight isn’t significantly faster or cheaper than it was in the 1970s.
Space enthusiasts embraced the new policy (“Geez Louise hot f*****g damn!” was the first response to the Bush speech posted on one online forum). Until January 14, the only human spaceflight destination NASA had on its schedule was the International Space Station. “We haven’t been exploring for years; we’ve been going in circles,” says John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “Sending people beyond Earth orbit is a big deal.”
The White House and NASA have yet to determine how they’ll meet the objectives spelled out in the new policy: sending exploratory robotic missions to the Moon by 2008; completing the International Space Station and retiring the space shuttle by 2010; developing a Crew Exploration Vehicle and sending it on its first manned flight by 2014; and launching an “extended” human mission to the Moon by 2020. Only 12 people have ever set foot on the Moon, and none have stayed longer than three days. If astronauts are to spend weeks or months there, they’ll have to bring a lot more supplies and
“The main problem is cost,” says David Gump, president of the space start-up LunaCorp. “We’ve got technology out the wazoo, but we don’t have technology we can afford to fly.”
Many news reports greeted Bush’s announcement as if it were a road map to a Moon base and then on to Mars. It fell well short of that. Although the January 14 speech was the boldest attempt yet to reignite the excitement many Americans felt when John F. Kennedy called for a U.S. Moon landing more than 40 years ago, hardly anyone believes that NASA can establish a manned base—much less a launch pad—on the Moon without a far more generous budget than Bush proposed. And glaringly, when the president delivered his State of the Union address—less than a week after he announced the new space policy—he made no mention of the Moon or Mars, suggesting to many NASA employees and supporters that he is unwilling to invest much political capital in a policy that, according to an Associated Press poll, only half the American public supports.
For those Americans, though, the new policy whetted a long-suppressed appetite for extending the frontiers of human settlement. With unmanned rovers sending back spectacular images of the Martian surface, the dream today is of a lunar outpost that would test the vehicles, power sources and life-support systems needed for a manned Mars mission. The question every space fan needs to ask is: What seeds did the president’s January 14 speech plant, and can they ever grow into a Moon base that will help humans travel to Mars and beyond?
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.