Send Artemis 3 to the lost Apollo landing site of TychoSeptember 21, 2020
While speaking at this year’s meeting of NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, space agency head Jim Bridenstine had an interesting observation.
“Those decisions have not yet been made,” he said. “For the first mission, Artemis III, our objective is to get to the South Pole, and, of course, the South Pole is where there’s the most interest right now because that’s where the water ice is and we need to characterize it, we need to understand how to extract it and utilize it.
“But I would imagine that there is going to be great interest in some of those [Apollo] sites.”
Bridenstine seemed to be suggesting that NASA might not be able to land at the lunar South Pole by 2024, the deadline it set itself for a lunar return. With all due respect to Administrator Bridenstine, the first woman and the next man would have a number of better things to do than to gaze upon a decades-old Apollo landing site, with all of its jetsam of experiments and an ancient lunar module descent stage and leave a plaque. If the first human expedition to the moon since 1972 cannot reach the lunar south pole, a number of more interesting sites closer to the moon’s equator exist.
Most people who recall the Apollo program’s history know that the last three missions, Apollo 18, 19, and 20, were canceled because of budget cuts. These voyages of discovery would have landed in some of the most scientifically interesting areas of the moon that, sadly, have yet to feel the footsteps of human beings.
One of those sites, which was studied extensively when the Apollo missions were being planned, was the northern flank of the crater named Tycho, one of the most prominent features of the near side of the moon. NASA had already landed a robotic probe called Surveyor 7 in that region. Wired has an account of a plan to land an Apollo mission a kilometer southeast of the Surveyor site.
The site would have been challenging, to say the least, during the Apollo era. It was farther south than the other Apollo landing sites. It was too rugged to allow for a lunar rover, so the two astronauts would have had to walk during their three traverses. Part of the time they would have been out of radio contact, being beyond the lunar module’s line of sight.
The Tycho site is geologically interesting because it contains boulders and melted material that were formed when the original impact created the crater. Samples taken from the site and experiments left behind would advance our understanding of lunar science considerably.
The Apollo-era planners eventually decided that the Tycho site would be too challenging. In any case, with the last three Apollo missions served up on the budget chopping block, no opportunity existed to visit this region of the moon.
Decades of technology development and remote observation of the moon later, an Artemis mission to Tycho would seem to be far less difficult to achieve than during the first era of human lunar exploration. A week-long jaunt to Tycho would be a great practice run for the later flights to the lunar south pole, where NASA is planning to build an outpost. The planning documents already exist. They just need to be taken out, dusted off, and updated to account for the more advanced capabilities the Artemis astronauts will have as compared to those of the Apollo crews.
Tycho, by the way, has a special place in popular culture. The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey depicted the discovery of an alien monolith deliberately buried in that crater. This writer included an account of an Apollo-era Tycho expedition in his story, “A Brother on the Moon.” An Artemis voyage to Tycho would add a real-life story to the fictional ones that have been told over the years.
In reality, any voyage of discovery to the moon, to the lunar south pole or a place like Tycho, would be as a balm for a world wracked by a pandemic and civil strife. The whole planet could look up and know that humans are still capable of great things.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.
Tags: Opinion, Op-Eds
Original Author: Mark Whittington
Original Location: Send Artemis 3 to the lost Apollo landing site of Tycho