Four decades ago this month, at about 12:40 AM EST on December 14, 1972, that Capt. Eugene Cernan, USN, lifted his foot up from the airless, age-old surface of the moon, and boarded Apollo 17’s lunar module.  Thus it was that humankind said farewell to hands-on lunar exploration, and NASA began reconfiguring its energies toward the Skylab program, in the final year and a half of the Nixon Administration.
But over the decades, the dream of returning to the moon never quite went away in many hearts.  Over the years, many astronauts have urged a resumption of interplanetary travel.  In his last years, Neil Armstrong made it a point, during his infrequent public appearances, to urge America to voyage again to the moon, and Mars, and beyond. His Apollo 11 colleague, Buzz Aldrin, has been calling for a project to bring a permanent human settlement to the Red Planet by 2040.

Now, an article at the British website of Wired magazine details plans on the part of private enterprise to return humankind to the lunar surface – and indeed, below it – within the next decade:

[Space Exploration Technologies, a company better known as SpaceX] is making cargo runs to the International Space Station, with other companies soon to follow. We have discovered ice on the moon, meaning it’s easier to live off the land there than we thought. The environment has changed enough for industry to propose leading missions, rather than going as part of a larger government programme.

One such group is the Golden Spike Company, which includes expertise ranging from Nasa veterans to planetary engineers and scientists.

Earlier this month, they proposed missions with objectives such as lunar tourism or moon mining. Each flight would require two vehicles sent separately into orbit, or perhaps together in one shot if a big enough rocket could be found. SpaceX would likely perform the launches. Under the current flight profile, an unmanned lander vehicle would orbit the moon awaiting another spacecraft, which would have a crew on board, to dock with it.

The company acknowledges that its aims right now are in science fiction, but it is working to make them fact as fast as possible. One thing they are more firm about is price, as they estimate a two-person return trip to the moon’s surface would be $1.4 billion (£863 million). The backers hope to start flights by 2020 — just seven years away. There is a tentative booking already from one potential astronaut, and Golden Spike hopes more will follow.

“By adopting a maximally pragmatic strategy, Golden Spike has found a suite of lunar exploration architectures that can enable our company’s first human lunar expedition for a cost of only about $7-8 billion (£4-5 billion), including all required systems development and integration, a careful multi-mission flight test series, and a healthy level of project reserves,” said Alan Stern, president of Golden Spike and the developer of Nasa’s New Horizons mission to Pluto.

Even missions deeper in space are being contemplated, although these ideas are still in the concept stage. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, is contemplating a colony of thousands of people on Mars. First announced at the Royal Aeronautical Society meeting in London, Musk envisions 80,000 people arriving per year at a cost of $500,000 (£308,000) a ticket. But it would require a financial commitment from government, as well as an evolved heavy-lift rocket on the part of SpaceX.

In today’s world, when major works of art can sell for prices of over $100 million,  the price mentioned for a return to the moon is not as daunting as it would have been in the days when gas was still a little over a quarter for a gallon.  It is encouraging that companies like SpaceX and Golden Spike are ready to make that effort.

And, in the hours before Christmas, it warms the heart to think of the gift the people of Alaska received this month, as described in Jimmy Byron’s post below – the return to the Alaska State Museum of Apollo 11’s moon rocks, missing for decades. The story is a remarkable one that, as chronicled in this article, even includes the Deadliest Catch TV show.

These important souvenirs of an adventurous age now sit in the museum alongside some of the rocks brought by Apollo 17.  Here’s hoping that before long, they may have company.

Happy Holidays to all readers of The New Nixon and their loved ones.