From time immemorial, we have had interest in the Moon. In Indian folklore, it has been described as “Chanda Mama” as being friendly to children. The Moon has also been described as the standard for judging beauty of women. Think of this: “Chand si mehbooba ho meri kab aisa maine socha tha…” [I never imagined that my lover would be as beautiful as the Moon…].
If you look at the sky, the two biggest heavenly objects that set themselves apart from other objects (mostly stars) are the Moon and the Sun. They appear to be huge in size vis-à-vis other objects appearing in the sky. The Moon always appeared to be very soft and quiet, while the Sun with a lot of scorching heat, warmth and energy.
This is what we, human beings, have observed since ages. No doubt, it was one of the reasons why the Moon came to be regarded as an object of beauty.
Little did our ancestors realize the true character of the Moon.
It was exactly 50 years back that humans first set their foot on Moon. On an eventful 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, two US astronauts from NASA, landed on the Moon. In just about 5 day from now, we shall be celebrating 50 years of that event.
In fact, in a period of 3 years from 1969 to 1972, six Apollo missions of NASA landed on Moon enabling 12 astronauts to touch the lunar surface.
Since then, it has been nearly 47 years. No human has ever landed on the Moon since then. In fact, there were very few space missions targeted at the Moon during last 47 years.
We lost interest. Why?
Remember, the first human-made object going to space was a USSR satellite (Sputnik) in 1957. In a short span of 12 years, in the year 1969, humans landed on the Moon.
How was it possible to develop technologies so fast?
More importantly, when such technologies to land a human on Moon could be developed way back in 1969, what happened thereafter? Why a complete lull? Why these technologies were not taken further with continuous efforts with regard to Moon itself? Look at the massive advances made in technologies in other fields in last 50 years.
To put the things in correct perspective, the supercomputer that was used for the Apollo mission that landed on Moon had almost the same computing power as the little smartphone in your palm today!
It is really amazing to see how various advanced technologies have been developed in last 50 years in several fields.
So, why are we trying to reinvent the wheel in 2019 now, learning how to land a rover on Moon and all that, when in 1969 itself, first human landed on it? Even the US is planning its next lunar mission with a lot of caution in next few years (it is likely to be between 2024 and 2028).
Isn’t it a contrast so well visible, showing disinterest or lack of interest of humanity in the Moon during last few decades?
Well, we must realize that one of the biggest reasons for success of Apollo missions 50 years back had to something with the cold war. Yes, you read it correctly. Cold war.
During the cold war years, there was a cut-throat competition between USA and USSR (the ancestor of present-day Russia) as to who has an upper hand. A lot of money had been invested in space technologies as a part of this rivalry.
It was USSR that stole the show initially. It launched the first human-made satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. It was the fist to send the first human in space. And, it was the first to crash a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon. All of this happened in just 4 years. From 1957 to 1961.
It was a sort of humiliation for the US. It had lost the race. So the US had to do something extraordinary to win this race. It is in this background that the then US President John F Kennedy famously announced on 25 May 1961 that the US would put a human on Moon within a decade.
And, NASA delivered it. In 1969, after about 8 years of that announcement, NASA put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of Moon. As I noted earlier, a total of 12 US astronauts landed on Moon between 1969 and 1972.
USSR (and it successor Russia) have not been able to do so till date.
It appears that having established its supremacy in space, the US lost some interest. The USSR also realized that it was too late in the day to achieve the same feat by making huge investments.
The kind of money that was invested in space missions was amazing. During 1960s, US was spending close of about 4% of its federal budget on NASA. To put it in correct perspective, today it is less than 1% despite NASA having several complex space missions.
End of cold war and collapse of USSR also became reasons for less interest in space.
As regards the Moon, it had become apparent after Apollo missions and other research that Moon did not have water or air. So, supporting human existence on the surface of Moon was near to impossible as per the then existing technologies. This too, perhaps, led to lack of interest in Moon.
However, over a period of time, other countries started having their own space missions, including to the Moon. China, India, Japan and recently Israel have shown their interest in Moon.
Incidentally, it was Chandrayaan-I, an Indian spacecraft to Moon, which established in 2008 the presence of water molecules on the surface of Moon.
In fact, now it is believed that though water is not present in liquid form on Moon, it may be existing in ice layers in certain parts of Moon. More so in the polar regions of the Moon.
That is why Chandrayaan-2, the second Indian space mission to Moon (it was to be launched today, i.e., 15 July 2019, but due to some technical snag, it has been called off for the time being) is targeting a landing in the distant polar regions of the Moon. In contrast, almost all previous landings (whether with humans or otherwise) on the surface of the Moon had been in the equatorial region of the Moon.
Possibility of presence of water on Moon has rekindled interest in it. Water can help human existence. Moreover, water can also be used to make hydrogen with the now-existing technologies, and then hydrogen can be used for generating power by acting as propellant for rockets for missions in deeper space. Moon can become a base for future deeper space missions.
There are reports that a permanent space station may be created on Moon in the coming years, much like the International Space Station (ISS) that exists in Earth’s orbit now. This space station on Moon is likely to be a collaboration of a few countries.
So, due to various factors, there is revival of human interest in Moon. Several Moon missions are planned in near future. US is also interested in sending missions to Moon in the near future.
Though there was less interest in Moon in last about 45 years or so, there have been many other advanced space missions during this period. Space missions have been sent to Mars (including one successful mission, Mangalyaan, from India too), Saturn and Jupiter. NASA’s Voyager-1 has already gone beyond the Solar system itself. The ISS also serves as a permanent space station in Earth’s orbit.
Thus, the revival of interest in Moon has several reasons behind it. Exploring the resources of Moon is also one of them. Gaining experience for further deeper space missions is another. Possibly using it as a base for deeper space missions is also one of them.