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A whole new space race has begun. Over the next decade, the United States… Germany… England… Japan… India… China… Russia… and even a few private companies… have plans to send rockets to explore the moon.
They will map the lunar surface… search for clues to its origins… and find out what’s there that humans can use to survive.
A Russian mission will send seismic detectors into the soil to monitor moon-quakes… and study the flow of heat from the moon’s core.
A Japanese mission will use x-rays to search for rare minerals.
An American mission is prospecting for water in the shadowy craters at the Moon’s poles.
But governments aren’t the only ones joining this new race to the Moon;
With more missions on the drawing boards…
– and the chance to actually make money developing space businesses –
private ventures are angling to supply launch or human transport services….
And even begin exploiting space resources like energy…materials…and the freedom from gravity itself.
Private robotics teams, vying for the 30 million dollar Google Lunar X-Prize, are designing, building and planning to launch rovers with video cameras to explore lunar landscapes.
It’s inspired by the Orteig prize that sent Charles Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic Ocean more than 80 years ago.
That feat helped launch the civil aviation industry. The sponsors of this prize hope it will unleash the entrepreneurial spirit into space.
The goal of these missions is to begin to fulfill a grand promise of the space age… to send humans back to the moon and beyond, to permanently live and work in space.
NASA has unveiled its grand plan…
It’s a series of steps… designed to build knowledge and expertise, while steadily reducing the risks to human life.
For now, it’s the space shuttle to take us up there. It’s a big freight hauling system able to lift over 25 tons of people and machines into space with every launch.
On more than two-dozen flights since 1998, the shuttle has carried the International Space Station into orbit piece-by-piece… module by module, solar array by solar array, subsystem by subsystem.
But the shuttle never lived up to its promise of low-cost access to space. Now, a new NASA transportation system is slated to take over.
If all goes well, Constellation will transport astronauts back to the moon… on to some of the near earth asteroids, eventually to Mars, and perhaps beyond.
Aboard space station, astronauts are already preparing for longer missions… figuring out how to keep muscles and bones from weakening and thinning out through exercise and nutrition.
Just as important, they are working on technologies that ensure clean air and water, shelter from solar radiation, and flexible space suits to work and explore in hostile environments like the moon.
The surface of the moon first came into focus four centuries ago.
The Italian physicist and philosopher Galileo Galilei had heard of an instrument built by Dutch opticians that could “see faraway things as if nearby.”
Galileo, in many ways the first modern scientist, saw this new instrument as a tool to help settle a long standing question…
What was the nature of the heavens, and what was the place of the world of men within it?
The moon, to some philosophers, was seen as a perfect, crystalline sphere of divine substance, free of Earth’s imperfections.
In 1609, to help support his science, Galileo began building and selling spyglasses to sea captains and merchant traders.
But he himself took aim at the moon.
He saw that it had a rocky, textured surface like the Earth, marked by myriad craters, mountains and ocean-like depressions.
The moon, he found, was far from perfect. To Galileo, the scientist, it was even better… for it was clearly a world unto itself.
Flash forward now… to a time just about four decades ago, the astronauts of Apollo piloted down to the lunar surface for the first time.
The moon, the Apollo missions discovered, is like a time capsule from the early days of the solar system.
Rock samples confirmed a dramatic theory… the moon is actually made of material very similar to the surface of the Earth… likely blasted out more than four billion years ago in a violent impact with an early planet that was about the size of Mars.
Moreover, the evidence showed that all those moon craters were not ancient volcanoes, as many scientists had believed, but rather they were scars from asteroid and comet impacts.
Scientists began to wonder whether those impacts had endowed the moon with resources such as water that could be tapped to support long-term missions.