Science vs. Exploration: A Piggyback Solution?

Lunex honorary board member Harrison Schmitt on the surface of the Moon. Credits: NASA

[Astrobiology Magazine - 29.03.2007]
Which is a better investment, science or exploration? The question is almost as old as the space program itself, and answering it won’t get any easier as humans move toward establishing a lunar base. But could science be an inevitable outgrowth of exploration? The exploration needed to occupy the moon will give us plenty of opportunities for basic lunar science. As the drive to explore and colonize the moon switches into high gear, some scientists worry that funding exploration could drain resources away from pure science.

One principle of the upcoming manned missions, said Paul Spudis, of the Planetary Exploration Group at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, is to “try to understand what is involved in cutting the logistical cord with Earth. Can humans live and thrive off the planet?” Spudis spoke at the February meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in San Francisco, Calif.

And that is precisely where science enters the picture, contends G. Jeffrey Taylor, professor of planetary science at the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “If you buy into the idea that the important thing is to settle the moon, with plans to go elsewhere, you are stuck with idea that you have to use the resources of space.” For settling the moon and beyond, “we will need to use space resources, and science helps us develop those resources.”

How can science benefit from a drive to live off the land in space? One key goal for a self-sustaining colony is to find minerals for building material, such as aluminum for habitats. The best known source of aluminum ore is on the lunar highlands, where abundant deposits of plagioclase feldspar average 28 percent aluminum oxide, Taylor says. Collecting this feldspar could produce a science spin-off, because the lunar highlands are studded with boulders that are remnants of the ancient lunar crust. Although some of these rocks were studied in Apollo samples, “they have not been sampled in enough detail,” he says.

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The Astrobiology Magazine has previously published a interview with Lunex honorary board member Harrison 'Jack' Schmitt, which you can read here.