Should the U.S. go back to the moon?

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Speed read

What's happening: Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. On July 20,1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. The moment stands as one of the signature events in American history and marked a major breakthrough in scientific achievement.

A total of 24 astronauts visited the moon between 1968 and 1972, and 12 of them walked on its surface. Since then, NASA has focused on other forms of space exploration, such as deep-space telescopes, rovers and unmanned spacecraft that travel the solar system.

In March, Vice President Mike Pence announced the goal of sending American astronauts back to the moon by 2024. NASA's plan involves returning to the lunar surface, as well as establishing a space station in the moon's orbit that one day could serve as a waystation for a mission to Mars.

China, India, Russia and European countries have also announced plans for lunar exploration. A number of private aeronautics companies have joined the pursuit as well.


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Why there's debate: Advocates for returning to the moon see it as a vital step toward humankind's future pursuits in space, both as destination itself and as an opportunity to test new technology for human excursions into deeper space. Some scientists believe recently discovered water on the moon could provide hydration for long-term stays on the surface or that the hydrogen and oxygen could be split to create fuel.

Partnerships with private companies could help reduce the burden of lunar missions on taxpayers, some argue. Others point to a strong likelihood that other nations — in particular China — appear destined to go to the moon in future decades, which would give scientific and strategic advantages the United States might not be able to consider currently.

Skeptics warn of the extraordinary expense to send humans back to the moon — the Apollo missions cost the equivalent of $228 billion in today's dollars. Others believe the political will that powered lunar missions in the 1960s just doesn't exist anymore. There are also significant technological hurdles to overcome, many say, if the United States wants to do anything more than short visits like it did 50 years ago.

What's next: Pence's goal of returning to the moon by 2024 will be a difficult challenge to meet, scientists say. Any delay could put the entire mission in jeopardy, since the president who comes after Trump may not prioritize human space flight. NASA hopes to have the first major technical element of the mission — a super-powered rocket that will propel astronauts and spacecraft out of earth's gravity — operational by 2020 or 2021. The agency said that if Americans do return to the moon, the group will include the first woman to walk on its surface.

Perspectives:

The discovery of water changes what's possible from lunar exploration

"A primary impetus for a moon stampede now? The discovery that there is water there, especially ice deep within polar craters where the sun never shines. That is a potentially invaluable source of drinking water for future astronauts visiting the moon, but also for water that can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen." — Kenneth Chang, New York Times

Government support could revolutionize the aerospace industry

"Some in the private sector see government plans for space as opening up a new frontier for industry and investment similar to federal support for the first transcontinental railway in the 19th century and federal airmail contracts that subsidized the growth of commercial airlines in the 1920s." — Wall Street Journal

NASA must overcome enormous hurdles to return humans to the moon

"[NASA] does not have a rocket ready to fly humans into deep space, and it has not developed a lunar lander since the Apollo programme ended in 1972. Then there is Congress, which controls NASA’s budget and seems increasingly uninterested in paying for the Moon mission." — Alexandra Witze, Nature

The plan may be too expensive

"The total cost of sending humans to the moon by 2024 is likely to be between $20 [billion] to $30 billion. It's unclear if Congress will appropriate that money, or where it would come from. Democratic lawmakers seem determined not to cut NASA's other science and STEM missions to pay for exploration." — Jacqueline Feldscher, Politico

A symbol of U.S. greatness would be tarnished if China dominates a new era of moon missions

"If China gets to the moon and America is not there, then Apollo, which signified America’s greatness in 1969, will come to signify lost greatness instead." — Oliver Morton, MIT Technology Review

The moon could be a testing ground to develop strategies for deep space travel

"A return to the moon would allow NASA to not only test out technologies and habitation systems in preparation for a trip to Mars, but would also allow astronauts to explore whether there is enough water ice on the celestial body to break down and use for life support (oxygen) and propulsion (hydrogen)." — Alex Stuckey, Houston Chronicle

International cooperation would maximize the benefits of lunar exploration

"To ensure that our nation’s values are enshrined in space governance, the White House and Congress must together reduce needless barriers to engagement with China and other competitors, ideally through reinvigorated U.S. diplomacy within the framework of existing U.N. treaties and committees. Collaboration, not conflict, is the sustainable path forward to the moon." — Editorial, Scientific American

Waste left behind by Apollo astronauts could hold secrets to extraterrestrial life

"With the Apollo 11 moon landing, we took microbial life on Earth to the most extreme environment it has ever been in. ... If microbes can survive on the moon, can they survive interstellar travel, making them capable of seeding life across the universe, including on places like Mars?" — Brian Resnick, Vox

A permanent base on the moon may lead to extraordinary benefits on Earth

"This coming age of space exploration will see humans return to the moon — for good. We will see an era of sustained exploration where people live and work on the moon for extended periods of time. And this exploration will be a search for good, resulting in capabilities that improve life on Earth just as the Apollo missions did." — Kaigham J. Gabriel, Space.com

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