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Ask HN: Why has nobody gone to the Moon since 1972?
60 points by audessuscest on Dec 25, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 54 comments

I was just reading this today, first part deals with this subject > http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/08/how-and-why-spacex-will-coloni...

I asked the same question of an old engineer at Kennedy Space center who was talking about the Saturn rockets to a (small) group of people (most just wanted take photos and cared little for history). He was quite blunt in his response, "We were doing great but then someone higher up decided that we won the manhood measuring contest and its better to spend public funds on bombing some poor souls in paddy fields half a world away..."

There is plenty to gain from it. But it is a long term prospect. Unfortunately today, everyone is after the quick profit (You know like building bombs.)

Some examples:

* A telescope on the moon could be larger due to the reduced gravity, and have a better view without the atmosphere.

* Helium-3 mining, not to mention plenty of other resources that are starting to become somewhat scarce and hard to reach on Earth.

* Since the gravity is a 6th of Earth's, launching space exploration vehicles from the Moon would be much easier and thus cheaper.

* Colonizing the Moon would be first step in getting all man's eggs out of one basket, so to speak.

* If man can setup a sustainable ecosystem on the Moon, then he can do so almost anywhere. It really is a great testbed for expanding into the cosmos.

* The Lunar Olympics will be awesome!

For most of these, you don't have to go to the moon. On the way to the moon you get to space where there is even less gravity (Hubble isn't on the moon)

Having some gravity may be beneficial for the colonists, but AFAIK, 1/6th the gravity wouldn't help much there.

About the only reason for going there instead of into space would be to use materials present on the moon. Of the materials, Helium-3 seems the best candidate, but it is far out, as it would require extensive mining on the moon and transporting it back to earth or space or setting up a huge colony on the moon.

A second reason might be psychological. I think a moon colony, where one could make trips into the 'outback' for a few days, may have advantages for the long-term mental health of colonists (from a space station, people could go on space walks/flights for a few days, too, but such trips would look more like 'going nowhere'.

If we find a way to mine rocket fuel on the moon then we'd have a game changer. .. since you need far less fuel to launch from there than from earth.. that's what the moon base is about

* Since the gravity is a 6th of Earth's, launching space exploration vehicles from the Moon would be much easier and thus cheaper.

Could someone explain this to me? I understand launching a rocket from the Moon would be much easier than from Earth, but don't we need to factor in the cost of getting the fuel to the Moon in the first place? Would there be any benefit over just launching a bigger rocket from earth? In this layman's eyes, it looks like a zero-sum game.

There is reason to believe there is water frozen in a crater on the south pole of the moon.

If this is commercially exploitable, this could be cracked into hydrogen and oxygen or otherwise be used as fuel and/or reaction mass, so it would make a huge difference in the economics of going to Mars.

Another thing needed for long-range space travel is radiation shielding, and this can be as simple as a few feet of soil -- something which can certainly be harvested from the moon.

The fuel could be made on the Moon rather than carried over. And one could also use some sort of railgun, since there is no atmosphere to get in the way.

Probably worth noting that while all of these are potential upsides to going to the moon, really none of them are reasons why we should have been going back over the last 40 years.

Space telescopes costs shitloads already, and thats without having to land on the moon.

He-3 mining supposes a technology that doesn't even exist yet - we DON'T have fusion tech.

Launching exploration vehicles from the moon (instead of perhaps in orbit mating) implies an industrial base on the moon. The cost of doing this, especially with tech from the 70s through now is literally astronomical. It's not even a long-term prospect vs quick profit thing. It's not even a "new world" type thing. At least Europeans could enslave an existing labour force in the Americas.

We also can't even setup a sustainable ecosystem on the earth - we probably want to do that first before we try on the moon - see biosphere 2.

I don't want to be a negative nancy, but my point is that in my heart I really want to go to the moon for all these reasons and more. But just calling it a choice of "long term payoff" vs "quick profit" is a brutal over simplification, and also completely sweeps the costs and risks under an idealistic carpet.

Specifically a radio telescope on the far side would be advantageous WRT low radio noise.

Some kind of interferometer with one antenna on the earth and one on the moon would be interesting. Yeah more convenient to launch two satellites into opposite sides of the earth's orbit or something, but this is close enough to have human repair / maint / installation techs at both sides.

One nice feature of a base on the moon is single stage to orbit is technologically challenging on the earth but on the moon its no big deal. Ditto "no biggie" to build a rail launcher for non-living cargos or an elevator for cheap living cargo. In the very long run, there will be people/things in orbit occasionally eating luxury moon produce because it'll be much cheaper to orbit from the surface of the moon than the earth, or the moon will be the breadbasket of space, sorta.

You get 24x7 coverage of half the surface of the earth... I suspect scientists and soldiers will have lots of telescopes pointed at the earth.

Unlike robots or probes if you have humans with enough duct tape onsite, human lunar jobs can be changed in minutes instead of decades for dollars instead of billions of dollars implementing a new mission from scratch. Although never underestimate the ability of mismanagement to screw things up. Just like on the earth surface, doing the same boring predictable thing 24x7 for years unchanged is best done by a robot, and "hold my beer and watch this" or "hmm that result is odd" is best done by a human onsite.

These all seem like very sensible wins -- especially #6.

I think #5 is the most interesting, but my immediate first question, as a total layman for space travel/survival, is how do we keep breathing up there? It seems like solving the O2 to Moon transport is a reasonable problem to tackle -- assuming we get people and gear up there -- albeit a lot of effort. How about the next outpost? And then the next? Do we continue bunny hopping O2 transports from Moon to Mars to Earth2... etc until there is a continuous supply of breathable air out from Earth? Or do we have a way to generate as we go further? Are we at mercy of Earth's O2 supply? That seems like the biggest problem for leaving this planet.

The moon is cheat-y easy


The TLDR is most lunar soil plus hydrogen and solar red heat gives a couple percent by mass oxygen in a couple hours.

So solar concentrators "boiling" vats of lunar dirt in the 14 day day, then tanks and nuclear powered LED illuminated plants during the 14 day night.

People don't use much oxygen by mass (although the volume is impressive) so a natural safety strategy is to melt chambers in the base so immense that you can survive a lunar night without any working O2 source. You'll want warehouse space to store "stuff" anyway.

On mars, a worst case scenario means you're a couple years away from the earth's surface (not just O2 or general environmental, but food and disease and sickness) whereas the moon is never more than a couple days from anywhere on earth. That's very convenient. I wonder how many years / decades moonies will "need" 100% lifeboat coverage like that. Eventually it'll make more sense to get self help from a neighboring colony than to abandon ship and fly back to earth.

Oxygen doesn't get used up. It comes back out as carbon dioxide. We would just need a way to extract the oxygen from the carbon dioxide again. One solution is photosynthesis, i.e. some plants.

> Oxygen doesn't get used up... We would just need a way to extract the oxygen...

Is that literally all there is to it -- minus reasonable loss? Does something like that already exist?

> i.e. some plants

Perfect! Do you think that plants can make up the loss from systems that we could set up for converting CO2 back to O2? When can fly some cows and chickens up there? Throwing plants and livestock on the Moon seems too good to be true.

Also, completely off topic, does anybody know the current value per acre of Moon?

One useful thing, not currently used due to space, weight, and power issues, most of which would be minimal issues on the moon, is the Bosch reaction. Basically, CO2 + H2 => C + H2O. Split the H2O(water), and you get back the H2 to reuse in the Bosch reaction, and breathable O2.

Not sure you're getting what parent said. Oxygen is an element. It doesn't get "used up" in the sense that you have less. It simply gets bound in different forms (like more complex molecules). It just takes energy to release it so we can breathe it again. No loss (unless you run it through a fusion reactor).

Photosynthesis is one such process.

There isn't really O2 loss from the natural process of breathing. Leaks in the pressurized environment would probably be a much bigger source of atmosphere loss.

Well, the question there is where does the Earth's O2 supply come from. The answer is what we should set up on the moon, a viable ecosystem. This means things like hydroponics, probably at least some algae based systems, that kind of thing. That way we can regenerate the CO2 back into O2, and get some food production along the way!

#5 is fairly useless AFAIK, because the exact same problem applies to the bottom of the (deep)ocean, and IIRC the ocean is cheaper to get to.

Although the pressure problem is inverted, IIRC - space has zero pressure outside, whereas the ocean bottom has crush-depth pressure outside.

You get O2 from water, with some extra H2 to use in chemistry.

There's water (almost) everywhere.

>A telescope on the moon could be larger due to the reduced gravity, and have a better view without the atmosphere.

Couldn't a telescope in space be even larger, due to zero gravity?

Suppose we're modifying the James Webb to make it lunar based, wouldn't we need to add additional structural support in order for it to not collapse under lunar gravity? That would drive up the launch mass and thus cost.

Along with fact that telescopes are incredibly expensive to maintain while they're in orbit, having a lunar telescope would be even more expensive to maintain. Plus lunar telescopes would be presumably bounded to the surface of the moon, which would make them less flexible in terms of observation since it'd be locked to the Moon's orbit.

I keep hearing about Helium 3 mining but do we actually have fusion reactors nowadays (or even in next 10 years) that can use Helium 3?

No. We might have fusion power plants within a few decades, but those will use deuterium and tritium as fuels, not Helium-3. Helium-3 fusion has some advantages, but it's more difficult and it might not happen within our lifetime.

The telescope concept would be very cool to see done.

Oh, definitely! Look at how much more visible the stars were for the astronauts as they did their moonwalks! Imagine how much better we could see everything with a less cluttered view again!


Does a lunar telescope have any advantage over a space telescope? Perhaps if we can build the telescope from lunar resources, it would be cheaper to assemble?

A radio telescope on the far side of the Moon would have the advantage of being shielded from all the radio interference from Earth.

I'm not sure that there are any advantages to placing an optical telescope on the Moon rather than in space.

The intense cold war of the 50's and 60's ended and the cost couldn't be justified. Make no mistake, if there wasn't the constant fear that our enemy would use space to drop nukes on our head we never would have made it to space & the moon as fast as we did.

Agreed NASA's funding is directly tied to the concern over war, especially with super powers. You can assume that NASA's budget will dwindle into the future, unless this fear re-emerges.

Several reasons, some of which are:

1) "Been there, done that - why go back?"

2) The Soviets aren't trying to get there anymore, so the Americans don't see the point of trying.

3) We couldn't even if we wanted to (Apollo equipment is long-since obsolete and unusable, a successor program to return to the moon was scrapped by Obama in 2010).

4) Nobody is keen on spending the billions it would require.

I find it sad that we don't even have the ability to go to the moon anymore, but there you go, I guess that's the way it works when we let our money-saving drive control our curiosity.

4) Banksters are keener of keeping the billions for themselves and to wage wars all over the planets and to any kind of concept, than to put them to work in the society to some exhilarating project.

Remembers, the millions spent on space exploration are not thrown out of the planet window to literally space! They are spent right here, given to people and making them work.

Instead of having PhD working at McDonalds, (and having less qualified people on unemployment or homeless), you would have PhD working to explore space, and less qualified people working up the jobs PhD don't resign themselves to do.

But there are two more probable reasons:

5) Aliens said: NO.

6) You don't really believe those billions of dollars were wasted on the F-35 program do you? (And all those other waste military development programs, of which we will never know anything about given the ACCOUNTING files have been destroyed in the 911 attack on the Pentagon and WTC-fucking-7). No, all this money has been used in secret space travel and weapon development programs, and they already have interstellar space ships and people going out there.

It's not at all hard for me to believe billions of dollars were spent on the F-35 program. Certainly less hard to believe than us already having interstellar spaceships.

Oh, common [1]

There are several satellites on the Moon's orbit right now, including US and Chinese ones. Japan had an orbiter, and so did (and will have) India.

PS. Indian Chandrayaan was stuffed to the brim with HD imaging equipment, and yet the only orbit photos of Apollo landing sites are from NASA ... Say all you want, but that's remarkably odd. Who would've passed a chance to grab an image of one of very few monumentally important Moon sites if they were fully equipped to do that and were in immediate vicinity of it.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exploration_of_the_Moon#Timeli...

It's expensive and the potential for scientific discovery is too low?

No one to race against is likely the primary reason. After all it is pretty simple to get to and has been extensively studied. From an exploitation stand point the moon doesn't offer anything at a cost comparable to what can be done on Earth, yet.

So until the technology exist that makes the planets more accessible I doubt there is a true need to have a base there. Science could benefit by simply being out of atmosphere but money is sucked up in military and social budgets.

A lot of records didn't got broken for a long time, humanity back then was like a kid just discovered a toy, we were surprised by what can technology do and we tried to do it just because it's cool and not because it's practical. Anything that didn't solve people's problems isn't worth taxpayers' money.

Because few places on earth are worse than living in a bunker on the moon.

If you like hilarious, sardonic, but also sincere writing, you should read, "Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?" by Dave Eggers. He founded McSweeny's.

It's a fictional story read as a dialogue (Socratic method). It's not stuffy post-modern fiction. Very readable.



Too much people were needed.


The Apollo program was built to land a man on the moon as quickly as possible, with a high budget and immature technology.

It was very well designed for its requirements. However it is not the right way to sustain humans in space long term. It cost far too much, in fixed costs and per launch.


If you look at old films on how piston powered airlines worked, the amount of staff needed was much larger than the amount of passengers and the trips were short. Hence by definition only few could afford long trips. It's just mathematics. Everybody can't be a lord with servants. Only with modern jetliners the amount of work needed per seat mile dropped drastically, and travel became possible for the masses. Something similar has to happen for space launch. We can't have a significant portion of the population working in rocket factories / refurbishment shops / launch control, so it must be developed and streamlined a lot. In practice this means reusable rockets with high flight rates and low maintenance. Further out, we need to extract resources from space to drastically drop the needed amount to launch from Earth's deep gravity well.

The whole Apollo architecture was a result of immature technology, short time table and large budgets. NASA should not try to repeat it, as the budget and the political drive are not there, and it didn't result in anything long lasting the last time either. Instead, focus should be on lowering cost of more modest missions at first. The Space Shuttle attempted this, but it was too ambitious and inflexible. After they built the mammoth, all the money went into feeding it, and there was no money for developing new things.

"“NASA is an organization that is dominated by fixed costs. In business terms everything is in the overhead,” he said. The committee found, with some effort, that the fixed cost of NASA’s human spaceflight program is $6–7 billion a year. “The bottom line is that they can’t afford to keep the doors open with they money they’ve got, let alone do anything with it.”"

-Jeff Greason, more at: http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1483/1

Hypothetical question: say gold or platinum was found on the surface of the moon (no mining required). Would it be profitable to go there with the current technology?

No: it's easier to crash the gold market, by selling paper right here on Earth. And see how well it works! Gold should be 10 or 20 times more expensive than it is thanks to the virtual gold running in the virtual markets.

All it takes is one rogue actor in space and suddenly all satellites need to be armored.

Even a moderately powered ground-based laser could take out billions of dollars in satellites.

The moon offers a useful strategic location because part of it is always facing away from Earth, making it difficult to attack from Earth-based lasers.

Because there's nothing up there you can make enough money on to justify the expense. Not yet anyway.

> Because there's nothing up there you can make enough money on to justify the expense.

How do we know? Did anyone ever attempt to dig even a few meters below the surface?

Nothing you could possibly find on the moon would be worth the cost of retrieving it from there. Even if there was bars of pure gold just lying on the moon it would be more expensive than just mining it on earth.

Well, gold isn't a very valuable thing, aside from it's use as a basis of currency and "look at this gold, isn't it pretty, I'm so rich!".

But there are other things that are more valuable. On thing is He-3, which would make an ideal fusion fuel. Another is pretty much any raw material, and the industrial base to use it. I'd much rather have industrial machinery churning out tons of pollution on the moon then on the earth.

Even assuming 10 ppb of He-3 in the lunar regolith, you'd need to process 150 tons of the stuff to get one gram of fuel.


Mind you, if we eventually automate extraction industries the economics for a lot of things change.

> I'd much rather have industrial machinery churning out tons of pollution on the moon then on the earth.

Would you pay twenty times as much for your computer in order to make that happen? And would most people do likewise? It's the answer to that sort of question that determines whether something gets done.

The Space Race was funded out of the military budget, not the science budget. "We can put a man on the moon" is a phrase meaning "we can put a nuke in your capital." Once that point was established, NASA went down to science funding levels.

Because we are planning to go to Mars now.

Wouldn't it make more sense to create a permanent base on the moon first? I mean it would be the best training to prepare a manned mission on mars.

It does, and it will probably happen.

There is no money in it

Lack of political motivation.

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