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Past Apollo missions can tell us what weirdness to look for on the moon…and more

By Elizabeth Rayne
NASA image of the moon

It was already a big enough deal when the first moon landing was broadcast on black-and-white screens everywhere on July 20, 1969, so most people watching from their sofas probably couldn’t care less about what was found there. That blast from the past could now guide the future of lunar exploration.

At the Universities Space Research Association’s recent 50th-anniversary conference, “Exploring New Space Frontiers,” speakers had either been around working on moon research during the Apollo era or were inspired by that mind-blowing time in human history. Turns out there were things found in that grayish dust that should have caused more excitement than they actually did. Like more proof there were once active volcanos on the moon.

While research and experiments are happening on the ISS all the time, one speaker, Apollo 17 geologist-astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, is the only scientist to have actually done science while his boots were on a world other than Earth. Schmitt discovered bizarre orange lunar soil that was actually made of tiny volcanic glass beads. In the ‘70s, our sleepy-looking moon once exploding with lava was probably hard to imagine.

Schmitt never really retired. After years of working on the science and the help of colleagues who were very precise with bringing out subtle color information that is hardly visible in those vintage black-and-white images, he revealed a startling new image of moon dust in vivid oranges and reds.

That is how Schmidt actually saw that soil on the moon when he landed in 1972. Not only is it surprisingly bright, but it also contains water molecules. Moon water was just science fiction back then.

While Schmitt recommends revisiting old samples (which is how the water molecules were discovered decades later), he is on board with bringing back new samples that might reveal entirely different secrets.

We only have five years to land on the moon, and during that time, we need to think of innovative and sustainable ways to establish our lunar presence. This isn’t just a “been there, done that” sort of thing. National Space Council Executive Director Scott Pace, another speaker at the conference, believes that an orbiting fuel depot needs to be part of NASA’s upcoming Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway.

The lunar south pole would be an ideal place to build a station, if you ask Pace. The more continuous sunlight would reduce stress experienced by machinery during day-night cycles. This idea came from the collected brains from commercial and nonprofit entities banding together to figure out the best ways to get astronauts on the moon again—and ultimately prepare for future missions to Mars.

While some scientists are nervous about the deadline, it could actually mean more focus. More focus means sharper observations. Sharper observations could lead to incredible finds … and who knows where that will take us?


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