Barton: “The Moon is a continent-sized area begging to be explored”

We chat to Andrew Barton, Google Lunar XPRIZE’s director of technical operations, on man’s return to the Moon


AAS: Why go back? What are the major potential benefits of returning to the Moon? 

AB: In the near term there are many scientific questions about the Moon, the Earth and the rest of the Solar System that can only be answered by sending instruments to the lunar surface. Despite being lifeless, the Moon might hold scientific secrets that can help answer fundamental questions about the origin of life on our planet. In the longer term, the minerals and resources on the Moon could be used to support astronauts in space, satellites in Earth orbit and eventually even industry here on Earth. One of the defining characteristics of the human species is a never-ending drive to expand our horizons, to explore and to learn. The Moon is a continent-sized area begging to be explored and once reliable and cost-effective transportation systems exist to access its surface, there will be countless people wanting to go and see what they can see and do there.

AAS: Could the Moon provide a platform for travel further into space?

AB: There is strong evidence that a quantity of water is present in the form of ice that is frozen inside permanently shadowed craters near the poles of the Moon. If that water can be successfully extracted, it would be an ideal rocket fuel to power ships exploring the our satellite or other destinations in the Solar System. Earth’s gravity well is approximately 20 times deeper than that of the Moon. That means that any rocket fuel located in the vicinity of the Moon is far more valuable than the equivalent amount of fuel on Earth.

AAS: What are the major technical challenges involved in manned missions to the Moon?

AB: Sending humans to the Moon is a massive technical undertaking, even with modern technology. The list of challenges includes life support systems, water, food, sanitation, radiation, medical needs, communications – the list goes on. All of the equipment and consumables needed to do those things need to be launched from Earth and transported to the Moon. Weight is at an absolute premium when transporting things to the lunar surface so there’s a strong drive to reduce the mass of all of those things but if you reduce it too far you run the risk of catastrophic equipment failures or running out of critical supplies. Balancing all those needs requires a lot of effort and will also need a lot of new technologies.

AAS: What future do you see for the Moon? Do you think a lunar base is likely?

AB: Just like the exploration program in Antarctica, scientists want to establish bases on the Moon. After the technical challenges of the Google Lunar XPRIZE are overcome, small lunar landers will be available as a delivery service to take equipment to the surface. The stage will then be set for an incremental growth in the size of those lunar landers. Simultaneously, the costs of launch from Earth’s surface will drop, especially if companies like SpaceX manage to make a fleet of reusable rockets. Lunar bases will most likely be established once the transportation systems are developed far enough to provide safe and affordable access to the surface for astronauts and sufficiently large cargo to support their life there.

AAS: What role do you think private companies will play in the future exploration of the Moon?

AB: In the Apollo era private companies helped to explore the Moon by undertaking government contracts. Today companies are starting to use private risk capital to finance the development of Google Lunar XPRIZE missions and other advanced space project. In the future, private companies will play an even more important role as financiers and operators of transportation and other services needed to explore the Moon. Governments will continue to play a role but over time their role will be less a financial one, and more of a regulatory one.

You can read more about our long-awaited return to the Moon in issue 25 of All About Space – on sale now!

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