A Successful Lunar Landing
I’ve been on travel the past three weeks, speaking about astronomy on board a cruise ship. I get a lot of questions from my fellow passengers, and usually somebody asks me when we’ll go back to the Moon. Well, folks, “we” in the form of the Chinese space agency, have returned to the Moon this week. Not necessarily a crew of humans walking around, but a spectacularly beautiful mission called Chang’e-3 and its Yutu rover.
If you haven’t checked out the mission, it’s part of the Chinese Lunar Exploration mission, designed to explore the lunar surface, and eventually bring back samples for study. If this sounds familiar, the Apollo missions did similar studies in the 1970s, but no one has been back to the Moon to continue those studies. The Chinese missions are taking up where the U.S. left off and I expect they will take lunar studies to the next level very soon. I wish them much luck — the exploration of the Moon, or that of any solar system object, is a complex task and requires the best and brightest to accomplish it. It also requires national and political will to see the positive opportunities in extending our scientific understanding beyond the surface of our home world.
The study of the Moon and other objects in the solar system is an increasingly multi-national process. Doing such exploration is expensive, and individual countries such as India, Japan, and China are making their mark in planetary science. But, in the future, I suspect that many missions will continue to be conducted by collaborations of scientists from many countries, such as with the Cassini Mission to Saturn. Not only was NASA involved, but the European Space Agency provided Huygens lander for Titan exploration, and scientists from 17 countries participate in science acquisition and data analysis. The Chinese and Russians have explored joint collaboration for future lunar missions, and there are many other joint projects between various countries under consideration.
While the Chinese bask in the glory of achievement, and received laudatory comments from many of us in the U.S. (including a nice set of comments by my good friend Greg Redfern (the SkyGuy)) I’ve noticed (and unfortunately expected) a tide of whining from some people in the U.S. (not all of us, mind you), about how it’s the Chinese going to the Moon now. We should be congratulating our fellow humans on their brilliant work, not pissing and moaning about it. I’m not sure what to say to the whinging contingent except, “Stop complaining and do something. Support NASA, support science research in our country, support science education, and if your representative in Congress or your Senator don’t support these things, let them know that they are undermining our future. Find new ones who will take us forward, not hold us back. If you don’t take action at your level, you’re part of the problem.”
You know, we once had a forward-looking space policy in the U.S., and it has been undermined. The laundry list of those who seek to gut our future is long, and it stretches from the halls of government to the apathetic voters who don’t give a damn. That’s all got to change. Otherwise, we’ll see more missions with “others” going where we in the U.S. thought we were going. There’s room in space for everybody, and the U.S. doesn’t have a monopoly on space travel. We certainly got it going, and it inspired many people to look to the skies for technological achievements. That’s great. I think it’s great that other humans on our home planet are taking to the skies. I hope sincerely that in the U.S. our best days are still ahead of us. But, we need to make it happen. Just as the Chinese and Indians and Europeans and Iranians and Japanese have done.