A Must-See Guide to Lunar Travel
In December, a company called Golden Spike announced plans to offer trips to the moon beginning in 2020. The group’s target clientele is scientists — from countries that can’t afford their own space programs but can pay the estimated price of $750 million per seat — and possibly private foundations on scientific missions. But the prospect of making a trip to the moon has the imagination of every space geek running double time.
Any terrestrial travel expert will tell you that you need to do your research before embarking on a major journey. Travel guides for the moon, however, are hard to come by, so I spoke with a handful of moon enthusiasts about what they would do if they were to make the trip.
First, as with any destination, you have to time your visit appropriately. Maine is delightful in the summer, Walt Disney World is warm and uncrowded in the autumn, and Lake Tahoe is a winter wonderland. When is peak moon travel time?
“I’d love to be there during a solar eclipse, watching the Earth move in front of the sun and then seeing the red glow of sunset for 360 degrees around the Earth’s eclipse,” says Mike Brown, a professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology.
The people at Golden Spike plan to have the capacity to make two to three trips per year in the beginning, and will work with their clients to pick a time to go. But, if you can’t be there to watch the Earth block out the sun, Brown says a lunar eclipse — when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun — is a pretty decent fallback. “Watching downward as the shadow of a lunar eclipse races across the Earth would be pretty spectacular,” he says. “These are things no human has ever seen.”
Once you decide when to go, you have to deal with the where. A Golden Spike trip will have some limitations: “The landing site will have to be on the front side of the moon, so that we have a direct line of communication with Earth,” says Alan Stern, president and chief executive of Golden Spike. And travelers won’t have a vehicle to travel on the lunar surface, limiting them to a walking radius around the landing site. Although Stern notes that any site would be loaded with scientific possibilities, the lack of a vehicle makes site location more important. So where would the experts go? It depends on what you’re looking for.
For history buffs, the choice is pretty clear. “I’d totally go to the Sea of Tranquillity and visit the Apollo 11 landing site,” says Chris Mihos, an astronomer at Case Western Reserve University.
Imagine stepping off the lunar landing vehicle and announcing to whoever was listening, “That’s one small step for man . . . .” But Mihos points out that the Sea of Tranquillity, immortalized in Neil Armstrong’s historic report during the first moon landing in 1969, isn’t just a location of human interest. “The plains are 3.5 to 4 billion years old,” he notes, “so you’d get a sense . . . ⅛of⅜ the history of the solar system.”
Still, there’s something unsatisfying to some about following in the feet of others — even if those footsteps made a giant leap for mankind. As the Swiss-born philosopher Alain de Botton wrote in his book The Art of Travel, earthbound journeys have lost their flair since the days of Darwin and Columbus. It’s nearly impossible for a traveler to see or do something completely new on Earth these days. The moon offers that opportunity, and many of the people I spoke to would seize it.
“I would want to be put down at Aristarchus,” says Denton Ebel, chairman of the division of physical sciences and curator of meteorites at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Aristarchus is an enormous crater on the lunar surface, one of the few features of the moon visible from Earth with the naked eye. Ebel points out that Apollo 18 was scheduled to touch down at the crater before the mission was canceled.
“Schroter’s Valley is located near Aristarchus,” Ebel says, “and it’s much larger than the Hadley Rille, which was explored by the Apollo 15 astronauts.” Schroter’s Valley is probably the result of a volcanic eruption, and any scientist who landed there would have the opportunity to investigate the moon’s geologic activity, which remains one of the rock’s great mysteries.
When I asked the astronomers about the first thing they’d do after landing, the answer was essentially unanimous, and it was probably the same answer any nonscientist would give.
“I’m pretty sure the first thing I would do is to try to jump as high as I could,” says Caltech’s Brown. “Perhaps do standing back flips. I might be a bit worried about my spacesuit, but, really, what is the point of going to the moon if you can’t see how high you can jump?” (For those who will never get to the moon, gravity up there is one-sixth of what it is on Earth, so multiply your usual jump by six for a quick estimate of your lunar leap.)
In addition to its weak gravity, one thing the moon offers in terms of pure enjoyment is spectacular views. “Just going out far enough to see the blue marble of Earth fully illuminated by the sun would be enough for me,” Ebel says.