Last summer there were two movies partially set on the Moon: “Transformers: the Dark of the Moon” and “Apollo 18”. In the first, the Apollo program has a secret agenda to explore alien robots that are discovered there. In the second, a secret final Apollo mission is launched to investigate Soviet reports of monstrous vacuum spiders living in craters.
It’s not uncommon for movies released at similar times to have similar plots, so this probably doesn’t mean much. Still, maybe there was something in the air when these movies were being planned. The 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 was just two years ago, so perhaps writers were thinking about what could possibly have justified that enormous effort. It seems unbelievable today. We couldn’t actually do it now, even with all the real progress that has happened in space exploration. The last humans left the Moon 39 years ago, and no one is really thinking about going back. Bush II made a big deal about returning to the Moon on the way to Mars, but only aerospace lobbyists took him seriously.
I was reminded of this by the recent launch of the Mars Curiosity Rover. When it lands in August 2012 it’ll join four other active robots at Mars: the MER-B (Opportunity) Rover, and the Mars Express, Mars Reconaissance, and Mars Odyssey orbiters. It’s getting crowded out there! There’ll be five robots at Mars just as there are about five people in low earth orbit on the ISS.
In contrast, there have been no soft landings on the Moon since Luna 24 in 1976. There have only been 9 missions there since then:
- Hiten – 1990 (Japan) – orbited for 18 months then crashed into surface.
- Clementine – 1994 (US) – orbited for 2 months and then was lost while en route to an asteroid
- Lunar Prospector – 1998 (US) – orbited for 19 months then crashed into surface.
- SMART-1 – 2003 (ESA) – took 17 months to reach Moon with an ion thruster, then orbited for 19 until it was crashed into surface
- Chang’e 1 – 2007 (China) – orbited for 16 months then crashed into surface
- SELENE – 2007 (Japan) – orbited for 20 months then crashed into surface
- Chandraayan 1 – 2008 (India) – released impactor, then orbited for 10 months before losing contact
- Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter – 2009 (US) – released Centaur/LCROSS impactor, and is still in orbit. Its camera is of high-enough resolution to actually see the Apollo LEMs.
- Chang’e 2 – 2010 (China) – orbited for 9 months then left for L2, where it is today.
Space agencies seem to really like to crash things into the Moon! Maybe George Melies was on to something.
Compare these 9 missions to the 15 to Mars, with 5 soft landers. You would think that the relative ease of getting to the Moon would make it more popular, but no. It actually seems like just a practice destination for new space powers like China and India.
The reason for the relative lack of interest in the Moon is obvious – there’s no prospect of life there. The major scientific interest there is in its geology, and that was fairly well covered by Apollo. There’s still a lot to learn, of course, especially in terms of resources like water that might make a base more feasible, but Mars has a lot more to teach.
In the two movies above, the Moon’s terrible secrets cause people to abandon its exploration in fear. In reality such discoveries would have justified the Apollo program all by themselves. Discovering life? Really? In a vacuum? It would have been the find of the century. There would have been a mad rush to get there by any means available. Sure, the creatures there were dangerous, but so are tigers and Ebola, and we deal with them all the time.
The writers had to add this kind of color as a secret justification for Apollo. The reality is that there’s not much of interest there, as seen by the relatively few missions since. Now if only the recent pictures of the Apollo debris on the surface had shown that some of it had been moved!