Forty years after the last human visitors departed the Moon aboard Apollo 17, space historian Andrew Chaikin talks about why we should return.
Hardly a day goes by when I don't think about the Apollo missions to the Moon, voyages that collectively have been called “mankind’s greatest adventure.” Today, 40 years after Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt left the last human footprints in lunar dust, I’m feeling a familiar sense of wistful nostalgia. I miss the Apollo adventure the way I miss my childhood.
But the strongest emotion I've had about the Moon in the last couple of decades is frustration. As Apollo receded into history, too many people developed the wrong-headed idea that our nearest celestial neighbor is somehow a “been there, done that” world. Nothing could be further from the truth. As another moonwalker, John Young, has pointed out, the Moon has as much land area as the continent of Africa. To think that 12 people, landing in six places, and only a few hours to explore them, could harvest the Moon’s vast scientific bounty is, well, nuts. The Moon, as lunar scientist Paul Spudis describes in my video below, beautifully preserves the earliest history of our little corner of the solar system, information that has long ago been destroyed on the restless Earth. I think of it as the rare book room of the cosmic library. It may even harbor pieces of the early Earth, flung there by asteroid impacts and bearing priceless windows to the time when life arose on our planet.
And yet, the Moon has often been bypassed by space planners in favor of Mars, which is a truly spectacular goal, but one that remains beyond our reach for now, until we develop the knowledge we need to live on another world. The Moon is crucial there, too, as Spudis explains, not only as a kind of Outward Bound school for learning to live off-planet, but a resource depot for future space explorers. Recently discovered ice at the lunar poles could provide a lunar base with water, oxygen, and even rocket fuel.
When I think about the gifts the Moon offers us, one stands out: the sight of the Earth as a lovely, precious oasis of life in the void. It’s the view the Apollo astronauts talked about as having the greatest impact of anything they saw on their journeys. And it’s a view that is unavailable anywhere else in the solar system. It’s just one more reason why I believe the Moon deserves to be called the solar system’s jewel in the crown, and why it still beckons us 40 years after the last human explorers walked there.
On this anniversary, my frustration is tinged with hope that I may yet live to see future explorers pick up where the Apollo astronauts left off. It’s a return that is long overdue, not just for the sake of scientific exploration, but to enable humanity to become a multi-planet species.
Andrew Chaikin is an award-winning science journalist, space historian, speaker, and author. Chaikin is best known as the author of A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, widely regarded as the definitive account of the Moon missions. For more videos, visit Chaikin's YouTube channel.