C.J. Marshall: Significa: Our first stepping-stone to the stars
Recently, I read an article that NASA was working on developing a system to allow the landing of manned spacecraft on Mars.
The space agency is looking at a large parachute device which, if successful, would allow a spacecraft large enough to hold human beings to safely descend to the Martian surface. This would be another in the many steps necessary toward the human exploration of another world in our solar system.
I'm all in favor of such a project, and would really like to see another "giant leap for mankind" in my lifetime with astronauts stepping onto the Martian surface for the first time in our existence.
However, there's another space project that sadly will probably not happen in my lifetime, but I still hope comes up eventually - namely the establishment of a permanent base of operations on the moon.
When Neil Armstrong and other Apollo astronauts stepped onto the lunar surface in the latter part of the 20th century, we all cheered at what we all knew was mankind's greatest triumph. At the time, we were certain that even greater things would rapidly follow. Unfortunately, such things have not turned out exactly as many of us hoped, despite the fact that nearly 40 years have passed since the first moon landing.
I and many others at the time believed it was only a matter of time before a permanent moon base would be established and manned by NASA astronauts, engineers and astronomers. Ahhh, if things had only been that simple. Having won the space race, there was no further incentive for the U.S. to continue its exploration of the moon once the Apollo program ended - particularly after the Soviet Union cut back on its space program as well. Oh there were other triumphs in the works to be sure - such as the Hubble Telescope and the Voyager space probes. But manned expeditions have never reached the same levels after they fell off sharply following the 1970s.
There are several problems with establishing a permanent base of operations on the moon which no doubt have hindered such a concept from becoming fact. Cost of course is one of the major factors - we would be talking billions of dollars in time, research and equipment. Logistics is also a major stumbling block - we have no precedent for such an undertaking, and everything would have to be built up from scratch. Then there's the problem of getting everything to the lunar surface.
To accomplish this, we would probably have to create and launch a huge mother ship, which would hold several modules that would ultimately be used to create the first permanent dwelling place on the lunar surface to protect the first wave of colonists. These people would have to be trained to assemble the modules into a single unit that would provide air, shelter and protection.
Of course, that would only be the beginning. In order to be able to stay for extended periods of time, colonists would need a steady source of food. A shuttle system may be possible between earth and the moon, but we would ultimately have to develop something with which the lunar landers could grow their food. Meat would be out of the question, because animals - even chickens - would require too many resources. Fruits, vegetables and soy products would have to be grown. At first, the colonists could employ an aquatic system to grow what they need - such systems are already known on earth - and later soil could be imported from earth. Of course, we're talking tons of earth so that would be a major undertaking all by itself.
Ah yes, I mentioned water earlier. The colonists would need it to grow food, and they of course would also need a steady supply of it to keep from dying of thirst. So, NASA - or whoever undertakes the project - would have to export quite a few gallons to the lunar surface in order to keep things going. Like exporting dirt, the operation would not be cheap or easy, but it would be doable.
And while we're on this subject, the most important item for survival would be air. An efficient recycling system would have to be developed beforehand, because obviously it would be impossible to ship bottles of oxygen from the earth fast enough. One source would be the plants used to grow the food - they could perform a double service of creating breathable oxygen for the colonists, while at the same time removing the carbon dioxide from shelters before it reached a critical level.
So, what our intrepid pioneers would have to do is create an entire closed ecological system on the lunar surface from scratch that would be able to support human life for an extended period of time. As I said earlier, the cost of such an endeavor would be enormous, and the logistics involved are going to be a nightmare. But, in the long run, I believe that such a project would be well worth the cost. We would finally learn about the long-term effects of what happens to human beings when they are away from the earth for an extended period of time; as well as what would work and not work in the establishment of other colonies on other worlds - such as Mars. In addition, we could learn so much more in such areas as astronomy and astro-physics. As time passed, the base could be expanded to allow more colonists and more operations to be incorporated. One such possibility would be a station to collect solar radiation which could be beamed to the earth as a new source of energy.
All these things represent enormous challenges, of course, filled with enormous risks. Still, we as a race have always prided ourselves in meeting such challenges. And I hope we continue to do so in this area. Because I truly believe that the human race's ultimate destiny is waiting for us out there among the stars.