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EDITIONS
Saturday, 14 December, 2002, 09:13 GMT
The legacy of Apollo
Sea of Serenity, Nasa
Landing site: The Sea of Serenity, south of Littrow Crater
Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the last time men walked on the Moon - Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt left the lunar surface on 14 December, 1972. Our science editor, Dr David Whitehouse, explains why it is time to go back

It inspired a generation to become involved in engineering and that fertilised American industry: microelectronics, computers, avionics and advanced materials all benefited from the lunar programme.

whoever controls the Moon's oxygen will control the Solar System

Years later President Bush said that Apollo was the best return on an investment since Leonardo da Vinci bought a sketchpad.

But Apollo, more than any other space project, showed us where we live in the Universe and started a global ecological awareness that lives today.

And, of course, Apollo also gave us the Moon.

Open in new window : Apollo 17
The last men to walk on the Moon

Cosmic chronicle

Thanks to the study of the moonrocks brought back by Apollo, we now know that the Moon was born in just fifteen minutes.

Cernan, Evans and Schmitt, Nasa
Cernan, Evans and Schmitt challenged humanity to go back to the Moon
Billions of years ago the primordial Earth, with perhaps the first flickering of life on its seared surface, was struck by a planetary body the size of Mars.

Within seconds this titanic collision squirted molten and vaporised rock into space. Much of it escaped to become debris orbiting in between the planets but some remained in orbit around Earth and collapsed into a ball that became our Moon.

Night-times on Earth were never the same again.

Rock collection

The Moon, being small, rapidly lost its internal heat and was volcanically active for only a short part of its life.

Apollo 17 Lunar Module, Nasa
The Apollo 17 Lunar Module lifted off from the Moon at 2254 GMT
With a surface largely unchanged for billions of years, it is a four-and-a-half-billion-year-old chronicle recording the history of our Solar System.

Thanks to Apollo, we know more about the Moon than we do about any other object in space with the exception of our own planet.

We have about 2,000 samples from nine sites, 382 kg from six Apollo landings as well as 0.3 kg from three soviet automated sample return probes. The surface has also been examined at 10 additional sites by other probes.

First moonbase

Returning to the Moon will be very different from what it was the first time around. But it is the only way to get the public interested in space again.

Cernan and Schmitt, Nasa
Cernan and Schmitt spent more than 22 hours walking on the Moon
The space shuttle does not go anywhere except round in circles, the space station is worthy but dull and, a trip to Mars is just too expensive. To capture the public's imagination it just has to be a trip to the Moon.

The science possible on the Moon is astounding. It has low gravity, no magnetic field, no atmosphere, no water, high vacuum, low or high temperature depending upon whether you are in shadow or not, seismic stability, no radio interference on its far side and total, total sterility.

To build the first moonbase we need take nothing with us except our ingenuity.

Future profits

There is in the lunar rocks everything required for supporting life, and many profitable industries, too. The rocket fuel - in the form of oxygen and hydrogen - mined from lunar dirt could open up the Solar System.

Because the Moon's gravity is much lower than that on the Earth it requires far less energy to mine and ship rocket fuel from the Moon to Earth orbit than it does to get it up from the Earth.

In fact, it requires far less energy to send rocket fuel from the Moon to Mars than it does to get it from the Earth's surface into Earth orbit.

The Moon's land area is about the same as the area of Africa. It is just as rich in minerals and in the future it will make fortunes for as many, just as Africa did.

In 100 years' time, the LunOx Corporation could be one of the biggest companies on or off the Earth because whoever controls the Moon's oxygen will control the Solar System.

See also:

13 Dec 02 | Science/Nature
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