Forty-six years ago today, the first human being walked on the Moon. And more than 40 years have passed since the last human did so.
Those of you who have followed this blog for a long time may have noticed a quiet shift in my position regarding Earth's orbital companion. In the past I have been rather negative about returning to the Moon, while more recently The Weekly Moonship portrayed a space future that included, well, weekly travel there.
So what has changed?
Most obviously, it turns out that there is a lot of water on the moon; at least a lot of ice in polar areas where sunlight does not reach. The stuff of life is not everything, but it is a big thing, and in particular it can be cracked to make rocket fuel, something that large scale space travel can't get enough of.
Provisos apply. A lot means one thing to a scientist, something else to a mining engineer, and we have no idea (yet) whether lunar ice will be available in concentrations that make it suitable for processing. And anyone who thinks that such processing will be cheap or easy needs to cash a reality check: Nothing in space is cheap or easy. Space travel is the most difficult technical challenge that we have surmounted as a race, which is exactly why July 20, 1969, like April 12, 1961, has lasting significance.
All of that said, I have revised my perception of the Moon in the human space future, and not only for merely practical reasons. Aesthetics is also a factor, and not unjustly. New Horizons has reminded us - not for the first time, not for the last - of the sheer wonder and beauty of the Universe, including those parts of it that are already within our reach.
The beauty of Earth's companion, as seen from Earth, does not need me to expound it. Poets beat me to that punch thousands of years ago. The Greeks identified Selene, as they called it, with the goddess Artemis, mysterious virgin huntress of the night. (They gave Venus, with its hellish conditions, to the goddess of love. So far as I know, poets have not yet exploited this entertaining fact. When they do so it will be one more indication of our maturation as a spacefaring civilization.)
Seen from close up, at least in the most familiar images - those from 46 years ago - Luna seems rather less enchanting. It is about the color of a parking lot, no inducement to poetry. But while every picture tells a story, those images may say more about the circumstances than the locale.
Statio Tranquillitatis, as it is officially designated on lunar maps, is just about the most boring location you can find on the lunar surface. This is for extremely good reason: boring, in astronautics, is a technical term meaning 'probably safe for landing on.' The first human mission to Mars will also land somewhere boring; likewise the first human mission to a planet of Alpha Centauri.
Related factors also influenced those first images. The equipment was designed by people who (surprise!) had never gone where it was meant to be used. And the people using it were trained primarily as spacecrew, not photographers. All of which is to say that the Moon can doubtless be as lovely close at hand as from 384,000 kilometers. But the images that will one day enchant us have yet to be taken.
Other reasons will, in due course of time, impel us to return to the Moon. And yet others will only be discovered after we do so.
All of that said, I am in no particular hurry to send humans back to the Moon. But then, I am in no particular hurry to send them anywhere. At our current development stage the only truly good reason for humans to go into space is to learn what we can do there, which is what the ISS is all about. The time for first-hand human space exploration will come when some planetary studies postgrad goes into her advisor's office, tosses her notes onto the desk, and says 'Okay, this is really bizarre.'
Yes, there are other reasons to go to the Moon that are not 'truly' good, merely good enough, and truly human. Such as the reasons we went for the first time. I think the current betting odds are that the next visitors will come from China. One more small step for mankind, but a huge one for any emerging space program: decisive claim of a place at the big kids' table.
We will return to the Moon. Not in this decade, probably not in this generation, perhaps not in this century, but surely in the fullness of time.
I previously grumped about the Moon - but, really, more about ill-advised hype that ended up setting back our space effort.
The image comes from the Astronomy Picture of the Day archives.