Like some huge, dusty old attic above our heads, the Moon has been unvisited by humans ever since the crew of Apollo 17 departed from the lunar surface exactly 40 years ago last Friday – 13th December 1972. You can go to see their command module (“America”) at the Lyndon B Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and if you were on the Moon now, you could also go and see their electrically-powered rover, which is still where the crew parked it at “Station 8″ in Cochise Crater four decades ago, in the spectacular Taurus-Littrow valley, which lies on the south-eastern edge of the Mare Serenitatis. Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt were the last men to walk on the Moon, and no-one’s been back since.
However, all that may be about to change. Alan Stern, CEO of new company Golden Spike, announced on 6th December that he is aiming to offer a private manned Moon expedition by 2020, at a cost of $1.5 billion. It’s a tall order, and a price tag that would better suit a national government than a wealthy individual; with that sort of sum, you could build a new airport.
Will it happen, though? The Cold War is over and developed economies are strapped for cash; few nations would have the appetite and the resources to return to the Moon a mere eight years from now. So the timeline might be unrealistic. But it is encouraging that someone is thinking about going back up there. Somebody’s going to have to, sooner or later. the Moon is not just a dusty (and dangerous!) old attic above our heads. It is – or could be – a vital resource and staging post on our journey to the bigger skies of the Solar System, with all the potential wealth that it contains. The Golden Spike company is named after the symbolic spike driven in 1869 to link the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads in the United States to form the First Continental Railroad; if its namesake is successful, this may mark the next step in an equally ambitious and grand venture ending – centuries hence, who knows? – in the stars.
Another news item recently was of course the death of Sir Patrick Moore, the famous amateur astronomer, on Sunday 9th December, which was a week ago today. I have some fond memories of staying up very late in the 1970s to watch his programme “The Sky at Night”, and learn of meteor showers, the occasional comet and which constellations were prominent at the time of year – it was like a news bulletin for those interested in such arcane things. Following the programme, I’d sometimes be out in the back garden after midnight trying to identify star clusters or wander – via a heavy pair of binoculars – among the mountains of the Moon. This was when my interest in space was kindled – Patrick Moore’s enthusiasm for the subject was infectious and I’m sure played a big part – along with all the science fiction I was reading at the time – in getting me started. He will be sadly missed.
Some useful links:
An article in Wired magazine about the Golden Spike announcement:
Sky at Night, on the BBC: