Forbes posed an interesting question on Thursday, what if NASA had continued its lunar program? The idea for the alternate history is that the space agency, perhaps instead of developing the space shuttle, continued to fly Apollo voyages to the moon beyond the Apollo 17 mission that took place in December 1972. In our history, people have not been back to the moon since, even though two presidents who happen to be named George Bush attempted to start space exploration programs that would have begun with a return to the moon. In any case, had the 1970s had been dominated by Apollo “like a bloodless war” to coin the phrase by Arthur C. Clarke, a number of things about the moon would have been discovered earlier and might have led to the building of a lunar colony in the 20th Century.
“Oh, I think quite possibly. They’d have found the ice and carbon dioxide and ammonia and other volatiles in the permanently shadowed craters at the poles. Also, the lunar caves, which may be up to 5 kilometers in diameter, and the peaks of almost eternal light at the poles, ideal for temperature and solar power.
“The moon actually looks rather favorable indeed, compared to Mars nowadays, now that we know of those resources.
“There may be hundreds of millions of tons of ice there, and also many millions of tons of CO2 and ammonia. And the peaks of eternal light have the most continuous sunlight available on any large body in the inner solar system (apart from possibly Mercury), and they have steady temperatures, varying by only ten degrees C either way. The average temperature may seem rather chilly (at -50° C), but that’s warm enough to let you keep a habitat at a comfortable temperature of 20° C with aid of a solar collector.
“The caves on the moon are also a unique resource, as they have the potential to be far larger than caves on Earth or Mars due to the low gravity. Larger even than city domes.
“There are also many metals available. And 0.5% of the soil is pure iron, which can be separated by a magnet. The soil is very fertile, tested by growing plants in actual real lunar soil.”
In the spirit of full disclosure, this writer is the author of The Children of Apollo Trilogy, an alternate history series based on the notion that President Nixon ordered additional Apollo missions, climaxing in the Apollo 23 landing at the lunar South Pole.
The point of the musings in Forbes is that the Apollo program and its premature demise constitutes a lost opportunity to enrich the United States and the world by exploring the moon more thoroughly. Such an extended Apollo program might have led to the fulfillment of a lunar base, with commercial mining operations, space tourism, and a remarkable amount of science being done in the latter third of the 20th Century, things that reside in the future in our history.
The foray into alternate history has another point, that being that it is not too late to take full advantage of what the moon has to offer. Bad politics and a lack of presidential leadership ended the Apollo program and stopped two efforts to return to the moon. But those facts do not mean that a third attempt had to fail, given the will and the imagination to carry it through.