Using a specially designed metal scoop, the author took soil samples from the floor of Camelot Crater on December 12, 1972. Human geologists may one day do the same on Mars; in the meantime, they rely on robot proxies such as Mars Pathfinder, which explored Ares Vallis in 1997. Image: Photoillustration by Scientific American; Courtesy of NASA (moon and Mars)
- The Apollo lunar exploration that began 40 years ago was not done primarily for science, but science nonetheless benefited hugely. The astronauts collected samples and took measurements that narrowed hypotheses of the moon’s origin and provided a point of comparison for observations of other planets.
- On the final moon shot, Apollo 17 in December 1972, the author became the only scientist ever to visit the moon. As he describes here, lunar exploration proved to be similar to geologic fieldwork on Earth. He learned to mentally disentangle the effects of meteor impacts to see the underlying rock types. But it was tricky to judge distance in the alien landscape, and stiff spacesuit gloves limited how fast he could work.
- Similar issues will arise on Mars missions.
Forty years ago this month the lunar surface reverberated with life for the first time. Forty years from now will Mars, too, come alive? President Barack Obama has affirmed the broad goals for human spaceflight that his predecessor put forward in 2004: retire the shuttle in 2010, develop a replacement line of rockets (named Ares), return to the moon by 2020, and go to Mars, perhaps in the mid-2030s [see “To the Moon and Beyond,” by Charles Dingell, William A. Johns and Julie Kramer White; Scientific American, October 2007]. The program is known as Constellation.
For now, policy makers are worried less about Mars than about the downtime between the last shuttle launch and first Ares flight, during which the U.S. will depend on Russia or private companies to launch its astronauts into orbit. What was originally supposed to be a two-year gap has widened to six, and in May the Obama administration announced that former aerospace executive Norman Augustine will lead a review of the program to see how it might get back on track.
This article was originally published with the title From the Moon to Mars.