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Return to the Moon - Pursuing Our Destiny in the Sky -
“Learning to Live and Work in Space” Wendell Mendell     Chief, Office for Lunar and Planetary Exploration, NASA Johnson Space Center

Q. What's the current status of NASA's human Moon mission?

In January 2004, the President of the United States made a very important speech, in which he told NASA that it had certain goals to accomplish over the next 20 to 30 years with its human space program. Among those goals were explorations of the solar system beyond the Earth, starting with the exploration of the Moon. After that speech, and the consideration of the ideas by the Congress of the United States, NASA started working to plan those kinds of activities. Most recently, it has announced the building of some new rockets and a new spaceship that in the future will carry astronauts to the Moon, and hopefully someday to Mars. Just recently in Houston, Texas, there was a conference at which NASA explained how this was going to operate: how it was going to land on the Moon, and what sort of things it would do there, somewhere around the year 2020. Their plan is to build a lunar base and send astronauts to stay there for as much as six months at a time. This is very far away - none of us can be sure what will happen in 2020. But if the United States still has a space program, and if the various Presidents and Congresses continue to support this plan, then NASA has the ability to design the equipment and carry out the landings. The current plans at NASA are to build the spaceships and rockets, and to begin describing what humans would do once they landed on the Moon.

Q. Do you think the Moon mission is one of the steps that will get us to Mars?

Astronauts exploring the Martian surface (Courtesy of NASA)

Yes, I do believe the Moon is a step to Mars, but not to build a rocket on the Moon. The trip to Mars is very long - approximately three years. And the astronauts who go on the trip to Mars will have to solve all the problems that they might encounter on their own. There are also psychological and physical problems the crew will face on a very long trip to Mars, and the operations that mission control normally performs in working with the crew will have to be quite different for our Mars mission. The crew will be very much making their own decisions, instead of being given instructions by mission control. And then we have to worry about the equipment they will take. It must be extremely reliable. We must know for certain that the designs are appropriate for working on a planetary surface. I see the operations on the Moon as being a learning place for these kinds of issues. We will learn how to design equipment for operating on planets. We will learn how astronauts react to these environments over long periods of time. We will learn how to run mission operations so that the astronauts are productive and happy in their work, and that they do a good job and come back safely. All of these things must be learned.

Q. What's the difference between the past Apollo missions and this new plan?

There are two major differences between the Apollo missions and the current plan. The first major difference is the reason for going. In the Apollo missions, the United States was engaged in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. And there was a strong feeling in 1961 that the United States needed to do something technically dramatic in order to convince the world that it was still a strong nation - and as strong as, or stronger than, the Soviet Union. So the Apollo missions were created in an environment of political competition. The second is that the purpose of the Apollo mission was simply to take a human being to the surface of the Moon, and return him safely to Earth. It said nothing else about any other purpose. The Apollo missions did have scientific experiments, various kinds of discoveries that were added as more missions were conducted. They were able to increase the capability of the missions. But always, the Apollo missions were designed to stay on the Moon for only one or two days, and then to come home after doing some scientific activities.
Now, the reason for exploration is more general - to help move humanity off our planet, to increase the possible economic benefits to the United States through operations on the Moon and in space, and to work in global cooperation with other nations on this endeavor. In addition, the intent is to build a facility on the Moon that will have occupants or crew living and working there for extended periods of time. So people will stay on the Moon for much more than one or two days. They will learn how to work on the Moon, learn how to build equipment that is appropriate for the Moon, and then, hopefully, they will take this knowledge and build equipment to go to Mars. So in this new plan, it is much more complex and extensive and long-lasting, and it has objectives that are extremely long term.

Q. Why are you planning a human mission this time, instead of an unmanned mission?

The United States has been flying astronauts into space ever since the launch of Alan Shepard in 1961, and the former Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation have also been launching cosmonauts into space. Many people have wondered, why should the nations do this? Because humans are very expensive, why not just have machines go into space? At the time of the Columbia space shuttle tragedy in 2003, the Congress of the United States held hearings and investigations, and one of the questions they asked was, why do we have a human space program? And in those discussions, it was decided that a human space program contributes to the inspiration of our young people and to the technological advancement of our nation and our society, and that in our nation, we feel that we are people who want to explore and move outwards and discover new opportunities, and create new environments. So that was a decision at a very high level in the policy apparatus of the United States. Other nations may feel differently, and may feel like it is not worth the investment for humans and astronauts to go into space, and that's okay. But in this country, we have made that decision.

Q. Do you think a human Moon mission is more important than an unmanned mission?

Astronauts traveling on a lunar rover aided by their robotic explorer (Courtesy of NASA)

Well, the missions have different purposes. If you want to fly a telescope, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, or if you want to fly a small spacecraft to visit an asteroid, such as Hayabusa did, then it makes more sense to build a small robot to go to these places and to stay for long periods of time in space. But humans can go to certain environments, particularly on planets, and can more quickly make discoveries, and learn how to use the resources that are available on the planet to operate for longer times, and to live there. Now, if you're a scientist, you don't care about that. You only care about finding information about a distant star or about some kind of biological discovery. And having an astronaut there makes no sense. But if you make the decision that there is an intrinsic value to having a human in space over and above the execution of any particular specific task, then you invest in those human beings in space, with robots who can accompany them. But we are not going to send humans to do every task in space. We're still going to send robotic spacecraft to distant planets, or into orbits where we can look at distant galaxies with telescopes, and we don't necessarily need humans with them. So it's a decision you make, depending on what you want to accomplish, what kind of mission you have to execute. It's not a matter of choosing that everything will be human missions or that everything will be robotic missions.

Q. What's attracts you to the Moon mission?

Well, my professional career has been as a scientist studying the Moon. So I'm very much interested in new scientific discoveries that will be made on the Moon. And I have been talking for many years about humans on the Moon, because 25 years ago I had a very simple idea that if humans were flying to the Moon, they would take a lot of equipment with them to study the Moon. But of course, it's not quite as simple as all of that - my ideas were very simple at the time. But I'm very excited about making new discoveries on the Moon, and possibly learning new things about living on other planets. So that's what my personal interest is.

Q. If you had the chance, would you want to go to the Moon?

No, I'm too old. I will stay here in my rocking chair and act wise.

Q. What do you think about Japan's Moon mission?

I know a number of Japanese scientists and engineers, and I have great respect for their intelligence and their abilities. I have a tremendous respect for the scientists and the engineers, particularly in their scientific missions, such as the asteroid explorer Hayabusa and some of the missions that have been so successful in X-ray astronomy of the sun, for example. And the Japanese SELENE mission, which will be launched I hope this year, is a very ambitious and very complicated mission that will study many things about the Moon. I think that the team there is a wonderful team, and I wish them the best of luck. And I only hope that when they fly to the Moon and bring back lots of information, they will share the results with us.

Q. Do you expect to collaborate internationally in this human Moon mission?

I think international collaboration is extremely important. As a scientist, it is very natural for me to work with scientists from other countries without any issues. Unfortunately, we have certain political difficulties in the world that sometimes make international cooperation difficult between certain countries. And in the United States right now, international cooperation is particularly difficult because of our laws about sharing technology. But in the long term, I believe that international collaboration in the Moon missions and in other activities in space is extremely important, and I've always worked to increase the collaboration among different countries. Certainly, I think Japan will be one of the team and I will work with them, if we have chance. The Japanese team is very competent and very good at what they do. And I'm a very selfish person, so I want to work with people who are very good at what they do, so that we will have success. And therefore, I like to work with the Japanese, because they are very talented and clever.

Q. Why we are going back to the Moon?

Well, first of all, we made the decision, at least in this country, that we wanted to have a very long-term investment in the exploration of planets and other celestial bodies away from the Earth, using human beings. So, if you just look at the solar system, you find that the Moon is the nearest object where we can go and land, and learn to live and work in space. So, that's one reason to be interested in the Moon.
But the Moon is a planet like the Earth. It's part of the Earth. And we can learn a great deal about the Earth by studying the Moon, because unlike the Earth, the Moon does not have weather, it does not have continental drift that moves the land around, it does not have oceans. And so many things that happened in ancient times in the solar system are still preserved on the Moon, where we can find evidence of what the solar system was like in the very early days of the Earth and the Moon. So by studying the Moon, we can learn more about our Earth, and we can also make use of the fact that we have such a wonderful planet so near to us.
Other people are interested in the Moon because they just want to travel in space and have adventures and find new things, and the Moon is one place that they would like to go to do those things. They would also like to go to Mars or asteroids, and so on. Some people are just interested in space because they believe that in the future, 100 years from now, there will be many activities in space. And they want to be among the pioneers or first people who do these wonderful things in space. So there's a wide variety of reasons that people would be interested in the Moon, and part of them have to do with the fact that they're interested in general in space, and the Moon is just one of the places that you can go to in the space environment.

Wendell Mendell
Chief, Office for Lunar and Planetary Exploration at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC)
Dr. Mendell has a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology; an M.S. in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles; and an M.S. in Space Science and a Ph.D. in Space Physics and Astronomy from Rice University. His research focus is remote sensing of planetary surfaces, particularly specializing in thermal emission radiometry and spectroscopy of the Moon. Since 1982, he has done planning and advocacy of human exploration of the solar system, especially with regard to the establishment of a permanent human base on the Moon. He is a member of the College of Teachers of the International Space University (ISU). He belongs to several professional scientific and engineering societies. He is most active in the International Academy of Astronautics, where he currently serves on the Academic Commission for Space Technology and System Development; and in the AIAA, where he has chaired the Space Science and Astronomy Technical Committee and sits on the International Activities Committee.