NATURE PODCAST

Podcast: The Moon, past, present, and future

Nick Howe talks to reporter Alex Witze about the history and future of Moon exploration.

This week, an extended chat about all things lunar with Alex Witze.

Instead of a regular edition of the Nature Podcast, this week we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of humans walking on the Moon. Nick Howe catches up with planetary science reporter, Alex Witze. They discuss the latest US plans to land people on the moon by 2024, the history of the Apollo missions, and what’s next for the lunar exploration.

News: Can NASA really return people to the Moon by 2024?

Books and Arts: Propulsive reading: books on the Moon

News Feature: These young scientists will shape the next 50 years of Moon research

Video: Three generations of space experts react to the Moon landings

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Transcript

This week, an extended chat about all things lunar with Alex Witze.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Nick here – welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, we’ve got something a bit different to the regular show. To mark the upcoming 50th anniversary of humans first walking on the Moon, Nature’s been doing some extra coverage on all things lunar. Reporter Alex Witze has been looking back at the history of the Apollo missions and considering the future of manned missions to the Moon. She joins me on the line today. Hello, Alex.

Interviewee: Alex Witze

Hello.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Thanks for joining me. So, the first thing I wanted to talk about was there’s a news story where there’s a plan to put humans back on the Moon by NASA. Alex, can you tell me exactly what’s being proposed here?

Interviewee: Alex Witze

So, this is the sort of a return to the Moon. You can think about it as kind of Apollo but 50 years later. This is an initiative from the Trump administration, which has been actually quite active in space policy. About a year and a half ago, the President said he wanted to send astronauts back to the Moon and just a couple of months ago they set an even more ambitious schedule. They said we don’t want to be back to the Moon by 2028, we want to be there by 2024. So, NASA’s now racing flat out to try and get the money and the engineering done to package up humans and send them all the way to the Moon just like we did with Apollo 50 years ago.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Okay, and why is 2024 the number that they’re reaching for?

Interviewee: Alex Witze

Well, you can interpret that a lot of different ways. Perhaps, most significantly, if the current President is re-elected, then we’d have a lunar landing within the second term of his presidency, and the NASA administrator has talked about trying to do it quickly to – what they call – retire political risk, basically kind of ram the programme through and get it done instead of dragging it out over many years.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

How realistic is this timeline?

Interviewee: Alex Witze

Well, it all has to do with money, right? So, how much money does it take to go back to the moon and is the US government willing to spend that on NASA? So, the Apollo programme, of course, was amazingly expensive. Do we have that kind of money now? Can we make that happen? It doesn’t seem nearly as politically feasible.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Do we have any indication of how willing the government is to spend that?

Interviewee: Alex Witze

We don’t really at this point. So far, the government – this is Congress, who actually spends the money – so far Congress hasn’t been helping at all. Congress has been basically ignoring the President’s budget request to pay for this. We’ll see how it all plays out in the coming weeks and months but if you want to go to the Moon and you want to build a lot of fancy rockets quickly, you do need a lot of money and Congress doesn’t seem to be up for that right now.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Well, this may be a very naïve question, but we’ve been there before – can’t we just do it again?

Interviewee: Alex Witze

Well, part of the problem is most of the spacecrafts have all been retired or mothballed, so no one’s built the big rocket – the Saturn V – in decades. They have to build an entirely new rocket and they’ve got to build an entirely new lander. They don’t have stuff in the closet that they built 50 years ago that they’re just going to whip out and use again, so NASA’s been trying to develop a whole bunch of new equipment to get astronauts back to the Moon. It’s complicated, right. It’s hard to build machines that will fly you out of Earth orbit and all the way to the Moon and back.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

In this sort of climate, if they are going to pull it off, how might they do it?

Interviewee: Alex Witze

NASA does have a lot of things on paper. They’ve got wonderful PowerPoints about how they want to do things in the future, and it’s a very sort of stepwise process. So, right now, there are NASA spacecrafts at the Moon – I don’t want to make it sound like there’s not. There’s a very productive orbiter, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that’s been going around for ten years and making wonderful maps of the Moon. But in terms of where we go from here, NASA has put out a call for private companies to fly little robotic landers – you can just think of them as uncrewed, small, little spacecraft that would fly up and maybe put some scientific instruments on the surface of the Moon – and that could potentially happen within the next year or two. That would be kind of phase one, and then the idea would be to send larger robotic landers, and eventually send humans. And there’s also talk of building sort of a mini space station around the Moon. This is the thing they’re calling a gateway. It would basically be a sort of an away station for astronauts trying to get to the lunar surface.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

If they are going to be sending robotic landers and things like that there, what is the benefit for humans themselves going there? Isn’t it almost an unnecessary risk to send people there?

Interviewee: Alex Witze

You know, there’s a lot of philosophical and political benefit to seeing someone walking on the Moon. You think about that boot print of Neil Armstrong when he first stepped on the lunar surface in 1969. I mean that was an iconic move in the history of humanity, right, as a species. Do we need to do it again? That’s a great question. There are a lot of people who want to fly to the Moon and mine water from craters near the south pole so that they could establish lunar bases and then move on to colonise deeper space. A lot of this is where do you fall on do you think humans should be sort of colonising the solar system? Do we need to explore? Do we need to explore in person when we could be sending little probes out there?

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, here we are then, 50 years since the Apollo 11 mission landed on the Moon. What lessons do you think we can learn from the Apollo programme?

Interviewee: Alex Witze

There’s a lot we could learn about how to do these enormous engineering projects. Apollo was amazing in just its sheer scale. I mean there was like 400,000 people working on Apollo with the equivalent of something like US$260 billion in modern-day dollars. What can we learn from Apollo? That we need to have kind of a united front, right? The entire country really kind of needs to be behind these kinds of enormous efforts. Like is it worth it to us as a society to be spending all this money on space exploration, and in the time of Apollo it was, for sure. Today, it’s not quite so clear, right? There’s a lot of other priorities – things like climate change, other sort of pressing global problems. We’ll see how it plays out.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, thinking about the sort of political climate that there was during the Apollo missions, what was it about that time that meant that this was able to be a successful way of getting people to the Moon?

Interviewee: Alex WitzeA lot of it had to do with the Cold War and the space race between the US and the Soviet Union. Think about John F Kennedy who had that iconic speech about choosing to go the Moon and do the other things, not because it was easy but because it’s hard. He was really marshalling just everybody in the country to kind of say this is a big national priority and we want to do this. Remember back in the Apollo days, the Soviet Union was absolutely leading in the space race. They sent the first artificial satellite Sputnik up. They sent the first human into orbit before the United States had even sent anyone into suborbital flight. There was very much a sense in the early to mid 1960s in the States that the Soviet Union was winning the space race and it was kind of a big geopolitical ploy, right? Who’s the biggest global superpower? Well, guess what, Kennedy said, we’re going to send people to the Moon and let’s see if the Soviet Union can do that. And the Soviet Union never got anywhere close to doing that, but for Kennedy and for the US and for people who were into space, it was a massive statement of how the United States was a superpower above even the Soviet Union.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, what was some of the hurdles the Apollo missions had to overcome during the space race?

Interviewee: Alex WitzeFor Apollo, it’s hard to overstate just how little NASA knew about flying in space. Today we think about NASA and we think about their successes and we think, Oh, they can land a rover on Mars, they can send a probe out past Pluto, and NASA is kind of shorthand for amazing stuff in space exploration. But if you go back to 1960, 1961, they hardly knew anything. We didn’t have computers that could control space flight. We didn’t know how you would even build a rocket big enough to break out of Earth gravity. We had no idea what would be the best way to get to the Moon surface and back. Basically, there are a ton of technical challenges like how do you actually get the people there and get them back safely. Like every single Apollo flight was testing things that had never been tested before.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, there were certainly like huge technical challenges. Was there other hurdles or opposition they had to overcome as well in order to pull this off?

Interviewee: Alex WitzeSurprisingly, the Apollo programme was not that popular with the American public at the time. Throughout the 60s, whenever people took polls about should we be spending all this money on the space programme, almost always it was less than half of Americans that supported it, and only at the very end when Armstrong and Aldrin were getting close to walking on the Moon did it start to become much more popular. So, one of the kind of crazy things about Apollo is that even though it wasn’t really popular with the public and it cost an awful lot of money, it still had a lot of support at the political level, so Kennedy, Congress, they thought it was worth doing because again, it was a way to show the Soviets that they were dominant. So, think about that today – if your government was spending billions of dollars on a programme that most people didn’t support, would that work? I kind of doubt it.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Looking forwards then, moving away from the past and the present of Trump’s moonshot, what are the next steps in Moon exploration?

Interviewee: Alex WitzeWell, beyond the States there’s an awful lot happening. China has been sending a ton of missions. So, they’ve been doing orbiters and landers, all these things robotically. Earlier this year, they landed a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon which is a first for any nation – no one’s done that before – and they have plans for sending out astronauts as well too. It’s not clear how that’s all going to pan out but they’ve got a real thorough schedule. They’ve already sent astronauts into space, they’ve had space stations, they know how to operate in space so we’ll see where China goes.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, you have the US and China – are any other countries getting involved in this new space race?

Interviewee: Alex WitzeIndia is about to launch a lunar lander and rover of its own – that’s headed for the South Pole as early as next week. Korea is building a polar orbiter for the Moon. Russia is talking about going back. There’s a European-Russian collaboration to go back to the Moon. Israel built a privately funded spacecraft and sent it to the Moon. It crashed, unfortunately, but it was the first time anyone had sent a private spacecraft to the Moon. So, all these things are unmet, but all these countries are in the race. There’s a lot of players out there now.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, just to close then, I was wondering, why do we continue to be so fixated on the Moon?

Interviewee: Alex WitzeIt’s our other world. The Moon is actually part of Earth originally. More than 4 billion years ago there was some kind of enormous cosmic impact, some big space rock, slamming into the Earth and it kicked off all this stuff that coalesced and became the Moon, so the Moon is part of us. So, we have this connection to it. It’s our only moon, you know, we don’t live in a Star Wars universe where we’ve got multiple moons hanging across the horizon. It’s just the two of us. So, I think there’s a real compulsion to visit and see and understand our cosmic neighbour, again, in a much more sort of philosophical way than can we land there and mine helium or mine water from it. And if we’re going to move out an explore the solar system, sending people back to our neighbour and getting to know it is a real big part of it I think.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Thanks, Alex. Well, listeners, I hope you’ve gotten to know our nearest neighbour a little bit better. To find all of Nature’s moon coverage, head over to go.nature.com/Apollo50. Also, if you want to see what humanity’s first steps on the Moon mean to three generations of lunar researchers, then we’ve made a video just for you. You can find that at our YouTube channel – youtube.com/NatureVideoChannel. I’ve been Nick Howe. Join us again next week for a regular edition of the Nature Podcast. Until then, thanks for listening.