Skip to main content

Fly us back to the moon

By Chris Impey, Special to CNN
updated 3:23 PM EST, Mon November 11, 2013
NASA says an object about the size of a small boulder hit the Moon in Mare Imbrium on March 17, creating an explosion bright enough to be seen on Earth. "It exploded in a flash nearly 10 times as bright as anything we've ever seen before," says Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. NASA says an object about the size of a small boulder hit the Moon in Mare Imbrium on March 17, creating an explosion bright enough to be seen on Earth. "It exploded in a flash nearly 10 times as bright as anything we've ever seen before," says Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office.
HIDE CAPTION
Big moon moments
Big moon moments
Big moon moments
Big moon moments
Big moon moments
Big moon moments
Big moon moments
Big moon moments
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chris Impey: It's sad how far America has fallen in our moon aspirations
  • Impey: NASA is trying to get back in the game with the launch of LADEE
  • He says other countries and private companies are more ambitious in exploring
  • Impey: The moon has much to teach us, let's continue the mission started 50 years ago

Editor's note: Chris Impey is a distinguished professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona. He is the author of several popular science books, including the recent "Dreams of Other Worlds," about 11 iconic NASA astronomy and planetary science missions, co-written with Holly Henry and published by Princeton University Press.

(CNN) -- Lady Gaga announced that she's going to sing in space. Everyone is raving about "Gravity," the new movie starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts in orbit. And India just launched its first Mars mission on Thursday.

Clearly, we Earthlings are still madly in love with space. But what about the moon?

It's sad how far America has fallen in our space aspirations. So far that we can't even get into Earth orbit without help from the Russians, let alone get back to the moon.

Chris Impey
Chris Impey

But NASA is trying to get back in the game. Two months after launch, its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer -- LADEE, pronounced "laddie" -- has finished its looping journey and it is gathering important information about the moon's dust and thin atmosphere.

Already, this modular spacecraft has tested a new system for interplanetary communication using pulsed lasers, delivering a blistering 622 megabits per second. Try getting that from your Internet service provider.

NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory launches aboard the Minotaur V rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Friday, September 6, in Virginia. NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory launches aboard the Minotaur V rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Friday, September 6, in Virginia.
Photos: NASA launches moon orbiter
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
Photos: NASA launches moon orbiter Photos: NASA launches moon orbiter

LADEE is a worthy mission, but it's a far cry from the romance and ambition of space exploration 50 years ago. When Frank Sinatra released a swing version of "Fly Me to the Moon" in 1964, the song captured the optimism of the U.S. space program. President John Kennedy had challenged the country to a manned moon landing three years earlier and NASA's budget rose by a factor of five to accomplish the goal.

The biggest and brightest moon of the year rises over a Jerusalem neighborhood on Sunday, June 23. The magic moment happened early June 23, 2013, when the moon was at the closest point to Earth in its orbit. A supermoon, which occurs once a year, is 14% larger and 30% brighter than most full moons, according to NASA. The biggest and brightest moon of the year rises over a Jerusalem neighborhood on Sunday, June 23. The magic moment happened early June 23, 2013, when the moon was at the closest point to Earth in its orbit. A supermoon, which occurs once a year, is 14% larger and 30% brighter than most full moons, according to NASA.
June 2013 supermoon
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
>
>>
Photos: June 2013 supermoon Photos: June 2013 supermoon

The moon landings were a phenomenal achievement. Even knowing that they were motivated by a rivalry with the Soviets and fueled by an unsustainable budget didn't tarnish their luster. The Saturn V was the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, and the Apollo program was the most technically complex human undertaking in history. Two dozen brave and daring astronauts reached their target with computer processors less powerful than those inside our modern-day smartphones. The 12 who loped across the lunar soil are the only people to set foot on another world.

Today, the Apollo moon shots fade and flicker in the public consciousness, like the grainy black-and-white TV images that many of us recall from just over 44 years ago. About 6% of the American public thought the moon landings were a hoax, despite high resolution images that show the landers and tracks left by the rovers, and ongoing scientific experiments using the hardware we left behind.

I used to get annoyed at the Apollo deniers. (Buzz Aldrin at least managed to get even; YouTube videos where he decks conspiracy theorist and filmmaker Bart Sibrel have been watched more than half a million times). Then I realized that a list of things that one in 10 Americans believes would include some pretty outrageous things. But willful cultural ignorance is sad.

New players are stepping into the vacuum. Google announced the Lunar X Prize in 2007, riffing off the successful Ansari XPRIZE, where private teams were challenged to build a reusable spacecraft to reach the boundary of outer space. A $20 million prize will go to the first team to land a robot on the moon that can travel 500 meters and transmit images and video. Twenty teams are still in the running. The competition expires when all the prizes have been claimed or at the end of 2015, whichever comes first.

India launches mission to Mars

China is likely to beat all these teams to the punch. A few weeks ago the Chinese announced that the Chang'e 3 lunar rover will be launched by the end of the year. If successful, it would be the first soft landing on the moon since the Russian Luna 24 in 1976. Less than a decade old, China's space program is well-funded and aggressive. China has put 15 astronauts in orbit and plans to complete a 60-ton space station by 2020. Following Chang'e 3, they plan sample return by 2020 and a manned landing by 2025. So, more than half a century after Eugene Cernan left the last human footprint on the moon, the next may be made by someone who speaks Mandarin.

Rocket scientist weighs in on 'Gravity'

Meanwhile, other countries are getting into the act. The European Space Agency has long-term plans to send robots and astronauts to the moon. Japan and India also have advanced plans for lunar rovers. The United States led the world in space but NASA is cooling its heels, with a vision that has shrunk along with its budget.

America's space program would be best served by continuing the mission started 50 years ago. The moon still has much to teach us about how the solar system and the Earth formed. It's not the sterile place we once thought; there's enough water and oxygen in the soil to easily sustain a base. It's the perfect place for learning how to live and work beyond the Earth.

When Sinatra performed "Fly Me to the Moon" on his TV show in 1969 he dedicated it to the Apollo astronauts "who made the impossible possible."

LADEE was designed to characterize the lunar environment in preparation for future human missions. But the Constellation Program that would have gotten us back to the Moon was canceled in 2010. LADEE will set the table but no one's coming to dinner.

By partnering with other countries or private sector companies, NASA can rekindle the dream and fulfill our destiny to explore beyond our planet.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chris Impey.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT