Return to the Moon

Reagan Williams
December 20, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2016


Fig. 1: December of 1972, Apollo 17 carried the last manned mission to the moon. Will we return? (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

People's fascination with the Moon spans the entire length of human existence; however, we have not been able to reach our lunar counterpart since 1972. (See Fig. 1.) NASA has sent six manned missions to the Moon, and through them we have discovered much about our extraterrestrial partner. Even though it is believed that much is to be found from a another trip to the Moon, others suggest bypassing the Moon and setting our sights straight for Mars. These arguments depend largely on the fiscal challenges presented by both situations.


The largest benefit that stems from a return trip to the Moon focuses on future space missions to places such as Mars. A trip to the Moon could better equip and prepare NASA for a manned mission to Mars. The cost also is much lower to return to the Moon than previously thought. That number has shrunk from $100 Billion to only around $10 Billion. [1] The way that this price lowering could be accomplished would be by utilizing fuel originating from the Moon itself. This would mainly include water and hydrogen. Combining this with domesticated fuel that is known to be very efficient, such as nuclear power, and fuel cells, a return trip may happen in the near future. [2] Another means of fueling could include plutonium, which has been used in powering the Mars rover Curiosity, could be utilized once on the satellite. [3] In continuing the idea that a future trip to Mars would benefit from another manned mission to the Moon, we can conclude that both the experience gained from such a trip and the means that would have to be put in place to achieve it would be enhanced and allow a renewed confidence in our space program. In addition to this, 200 million tons of spacecraft propellent could be produced in a mission to the Moon, and NASA could use this to lower the cost of going to Mars. [1]


The case against returning to the Moon starts and ends with cost. Scientists agree that much can be learned from a return visit, but the question remains if the ends would outweigh the means. Many think that the money to be invested for a return trip to the Moon would be better served in other ways, namely a trip to Mars instead. Also, with the recent government defunding of programs like NASA, it is difficult to tell how much time, money, and energy our government is willing to put forth in order to ensure the future of space exploration. This had led to a growth of private entities such as SpaceX and others to begin investing in their own space programs. Even though this is good for competition, the most likely route back to the Moon will include the US government's involvement.


With vast scientific progress taking place and ever growing technologies developing everyday, one can assume that an expansion of our species' space exploration is inevitable. While there are roadblocks to this proposition, there are also many contributors that devote all of their energy to increasing the likelihood of a return trip to the Moon. There are many benefits that would come out of such trip and those benefits are recognized by the scientific community, the next step is securing the proper funds to make the journey a reality.

© Reagan Williams. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] C. Miller et al., "Economic Assessment and Systems Analysis of an Evolvable Lunar Architecture that Leverages Commercial Space Capabilities and Public-Private-Partnerships," NextGen Space LLC, July 2015.

[2] B. Johnson, "Power Sources for Space Exploration," Physics 240, Stanford University, Fall 2012.

[3] J. Belanger, "Powering NASA's Curiosity," Physics 240, Stanford University, Fall 2012.