For your July 4: America's Lunar Glory


America on the Moon. Photo by SSPL/Getty Images

It's July 4th here in America, so technically I shouldn't even be posting today. But I thought I'd share a quick snapshot from American History. Needless to say, there are times when pride in ones' country is harder to come by. And really, that's part of the American ideal: We can always disagree to no end about where we are and where we're going, while also coming to terms with the horrors of our past.

But then there's our space program. Between 1969 and 1972, we anded on Earth's moon six times. Here we see Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott as he salutes the Stars and Stripes at the Hadley-Apennine lunar landing site. The flag had to be artificially stiffened to make it look as if it was flying in the airless atmosphere, but such is the stuff of patriotism.

Will Americans ever return to the moon? Will humans? I wrote about the question for Discovery News right here, but here's just a quick quote:

"I see humans absolutely returning to the moon eventually," says William Pomerantz, senior director of the Google X Prize foundation. "I don't foresee it happening in the 2010s, but it's moderately likely in the 2020s." Why do we stand to place a good half-century gap between our manned lunar programs? The main reason, according to Moon Society President Peter Kokh, comes down to the technology we have to get there. "When NASA was given the mandate by Kennedy to win the space race, it was necessary to design a space transportation architecture, which makes no sense at all if you're going to be going back repeatedly and building up a large space outpost," Kokh says. Such a delivery system, according to Kokh, results only in "flags and footprints." Plus, as Pomerantz adds, they're a long time coming. "Governments have shown the capacity to do lunar missions and to do them very well," says Pomerantz. "But generally speaking, they can do them only once every decade or so. As a consequence, they do these very big, very expensive and extraordinarily capable missions. They'll take landers or orbiters or rovers that have 20 different sensors on them." Although such large-scale efforts will continue to play a role in humanity's exploration of the moon, smaller missions will play an essential role as well. These missions will entail both smaller payloads and more streamlined parameters, such as carrying out specific experiments or scouting a landing area. "Sometimes you need a Mack truck, and sometimes you need a bicycle," Pomerantz says, "and right now the government only has the Mack."

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.