NASA's plan to return to the moon — first by robotic missions scheduled to start this year, followed by the replanting of human footprints there by 2020 — will require a new cadre of lunar research and exploration specialists.
That talent largely was dissipated after the Apollo lunar landing program ended in 1972. As a result, several steps need to be taken to recuperate both the scientific and technical expertise that will be needed to investigate and understand the moon.
And scientists are enthusiastic about the prospect. Many of those who attended the recent Lunar and Planetary Science Conference March 10-14 in League City, Texas, said Earth's closest celestial neighbor is far from being a "been there, done that world" that offers no unknowns worth solving. And several sessions dedicated to lunar science clearly showed a rebound of interest in the moon.
"There will be new lunar scientists developed in India, Japan and China ... that's good. But we need more here in the United States," observed G. Jeffrey Taylor, a planetary scientist at the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.
There are two groups of existing lunar scientists, Taylor suggested: "Those that have never stopped doing it, even if it's part time, and others that left but are doing other planetary science."
Taylor said the best place to recruit a bevy of new lunar researchers is from other planetary problems, particularly by broadening the interest of those that work on Mars, he said.
Particularly striking were first results from Japan's ongoing Kaguya lunar orbiter mission and the showing of eye-catching high-definition video views of the moon's surface taken by that spacecraft.
Kaguya has joined China's Change'1 in lunar orbit, with India's Chandrayaan-1, carrying U.S.-provided experiments as part of its payload, set to begin circling the moon in a few months.
Many U.S. lunar missions ahead
Given the slate of lunar missions ahead such as NASA'sLunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is scheduled to launch later this year to create high-resolution maps, seek landing sites, as well as search for water ice and other useful resources, NASA sorely needs new lunar experts to analyze new data sets.
Part of that NASA LRO mission is the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS. It will launch with LRO, and then travel independently of the orbiter and crash into the lunar surface to search for water ice.
NASA has several other lunar robotic spacecraft on the books or in the preliminary planning stages, such as the twin Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory spacecraft and the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer.
NASA also is appealing to other nations to help put in place an International Lunar Network of science nodes. That high-tech network would make use of 21st century technology, with the goal of having the network running five to seven years from now.
Nations are being invited to fly their nodes to the lunar surface, either fixed platforms or mobile hardware. Each node would carry a core set of science instruments, and nations can add experiment packages beyond that core hub of devices.
"That network can offer big science content," Taylor said, "maybe the most important lunar science data set you can get is a global seismic network ... to help understand the moon's composition, which tells us the details of its origin."
"We need a lunar scientist surge," Taylor told SPACE.com. "We have to increase the numbers because we have too much to do for the number of people now engaged," he said.
Re-discovering the moon
Still, in terms of the size of the overall lunar research family, "it's very thin," said Clive Neal a professor of civil engineering and geological sciences at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
The first steps toward addressing that shortfall already are under way: more missions to the moon and an increase in research and analysis funding, Neal told SPACE.com.
"There is a sea change going on ... and it's the logical thing to do," said Neal, who also is chair of NASA's Lunar Exploration Analysis Group. Robotic spacecraft can help set the stage for a human return to the moon, including the establishment of a lunar outpost, he added. "So doing this ahead of the buildup of lunar infrastructure is critical, both for exploration and for science ... as well as the fostering of a commercial tie-in at the moon for sustainability."
Regarding the need to resurrect the lunar community, Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, told SPACE.com in a March 31 interview: "The sooner we can do that the better." The more lessons learned that can be transferred from the lunar scientists of the 1960s and 1970s to the next generation of young scientists the better, he said.
"We're going to go back and re-discover the moon," Green suggested. Thanks to early lunar research, "the moon is now a much more fascinating object that is really going to tell us so much more about the origin and evolution of the solar system," he said.
As part of the agency's effort to foster the growth of a new community of lunar scientists, NASA's Science Mission Directorate has established the NASA Lunar Science Institute. The institute, which has been charged with developing and training the next generation of lunar researchers, is managed by NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.
The rebuilding of a lunar science community is essential, said Paul Spudis, a planetary geologist and lunar expert at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.
"We not only need competent lunar scientists to plan and execute the future exploration of the moon, but also to help design and build the machines and technologies we need to learn to live and stay on the moon ... particularly in regard to resource utilization and long-term habitation. It is important to get started with students at all levels now so that a stable, experienced lunar science community exists when we return to the moon," Spudis said.
Harrison Schmitt, an Apollo 17 moonwalker, said the U.S. lunar science community is "alive, well and raring to go." Schmitt was the only professional geologist in the Apollo astronaut corps and the first and only scientist-astronaut on board the Apollo program's last voyage to the moon in December 1972.
"The rest of the world is still playing catch up relative to the dynamic lunar science community that exists in the United States," Schmitt told SPACE.com in a March 31 e-mail.
But Schmitt, too, has concerns.
"It is not yet clear, however, if the next administration and the Congress, and the non-NASA scientific institutions of the country, are going to provide the continuing funding necessary to properly prepare a future, uninterrupted lunar and planetary exploration program," Schmitt said. That program can build on Apollo and current knowledge and insights about the Moon, he added, as well as on the relationships of lunar history to that of the Earth and other planets.
Schmitt said the prospect of such funding is under serious threat, akin to the "same gross under-funding that infected the space shuttle development in its early years and for which we have paid dearly."
A major development program can never recover from under-funding and unrealistic management constraints in its formative years, Schmitt said.
While not as daunting an issue as space program under-funding, there is a strong need for a very "proactive recruitment" of mature, experienced field geologists to apply to become astronauts.
In Schmitt's opinion, having an experience base that draws from terrestrial exploration in NASA's astronaut office is particularly important now — given the formative phase of operational lunar surface mission planning. That know-how also helps in designing exploration equipment ... as well as when crews are selected for actual lunar mission training, he added.
"Relying on random volunteers to fill this role is taking the same chance we took once in Apollo," Schmitt recalled, "and ended up with only one field geologist to participate in those activities." While all went fairly well in Apollo, given a unique set of circumstances, he said, "the times and flexibility in the planning process were very different than now."
In addition to astronaut recruitment, Schmitt pointed out that "remobilization of the outside geological community" to take part in background and mission training will be a critical component of a fruitful exploration program for the moon and eventually for Mars.