‘Mars’ ain’t gonna be easy’: What Apollo 17 leaders say about the future exploration of space

Apollo 17 flight director Gerry Griffin (left), retired astronaut Jack Schmitt (center), and back room scientist James Head, held a panel discussion for the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 17 mission in the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, on March 21, 2018.

(National Institute for air and Space/Lunar and Planetary Institute )


THE WOODLANDS, Texas — the celebration of the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 17 — the last time that astronauts walked on the moon — three key figures from the historic mission held a panel discussion here at the 49th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference on Wednesday (21 March). Apollo 17 flew to the moon in December 1972 and marked the end of NASA’s Apollo program. The lunar module pilot Harrison “Jack” Schmitt and Cmdr. Gene Cernan would be the last people to set foot on the moon. Now, 45 years later, NASA is finally making plans for the long-awaited return.

On the panel, Schmitt (a geologist who was the first trained scientist on the moon, Apollo 17 flight director Gerry Griffin and backroom scientist Jim Head was thinking back on some of the highlights of the mission, such as the “orange” bottom Schmitt discovered on the moon and at the time that the crew repaired a lunar rover with duct tape. But they also looked to the future and explained why they are of the opinion that sending humans back to the moon is a crucial step for sending humans to Mars.

“Mars ain’t gonna be easy,” Schmitt said during the panel. “There are a whole bunch of operational problems in connection with not only the landing on Mars, but also work on Mars, which we really need to work out closer to the Earth and the moon is a place to do that.” [Apollo 17: NASA’s Final Apollo moon landing Mission in Photos]

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  • Harrison “Jack” Schmitt

  • Gene Cernan

  • Gerry Griffin

All Apollo astronauts have long supported this idea of using the moon as a “stepping stone” to Mars, Head added. Now President, Donald Trump has signed, the Space Policy Directive 1, which leads NASA to prep for manned missions to Mars by first sending astronauts to the moon, it seems more likely that their wish will come true. However, some members of the space science community have doubts about the in Asset the ability to this ambitious goal.

“We should go back to the moon for a lot of reasons,” Griffin said, “but we have to get our mojo back.” Sending humans into deep space is very different from sending in a low Earth orbit, where NASA’s manned space program has the most experience of working on the International Space Station, ” he said. Not only do We need various forms of spacecraft and life-support systems, ground support systems, to deal with the long distance and communication delays.

“Even when we work on Mars, I think that the science backroom is going to be even more important than it was for Apollo because of the planning of the activity that the communication delays,” Schmitt said.

The longer distance also makes it much harder, if not impossible, for a manned spacecraft to turn around and come back to Earth when the mission had to be aborted midflight. “You would have to engineer your landing craft so that you can break down to the land [Mars] and the problems that are there,” he said. “For me, it’s just common sense that you would not do. And that is a challenge.”

Schmitt proposed to work out that kind of problems by doing moon missions, “in part in a simulation mode” to “figure out what we are missing is operational that we don’t think with regard to the preparation for Mars.”

“The beauty of the moon, you can work with the most of this kind of issues … while you do good scientific research,” Schmitt said. “So, you get a double return out of when you’re doing your preparation for Mars.”

Even before Trump directed NASA to send astronauts back to the moon, the agency had been working on a plan to build a small space station in lunar orbit, which would serve as a stepping-stone for manned missions to Mars. The Moon-Orbital Platform-Gateway-concept (formerly known as the Deep Space Gateway) could serve as a staging ground for a manned landing on the moon’s surface.

While some experts believe that a moon outpost gives NASA an opportunity to practice for a manned missions to Mars, others argue that it is an unnecessary detour on the way to the Red Planet, which only cost more time and money than a more direct approach.

Still, every person who has been to the moon agree that we need to go back for the pursuit of more distant travel, Head said. Apollo astronauts might be biased in the direction of a return to the moon, but they are also the only people who speak from experience about what it is to travel in deep space.

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