China's Jade Rabbit moon rover made history, and tracks, when it wheeled across the moon's gray surface on Sunday.
The rover and its lander, the Chang'e 3, are the first spacecraft to soft-land on the lunar surface since 1976. Together they've made China the third nation ever to achieve a soft landing on the moon. (See also: "Watch HD Footage of China's Historic Moon Rover Landing.")
America largely lost interest in walking on the moon after the Apollo program ended in the 1970s. But the situation is changing, says Christopher McKay, a planetary scientist with NASA. "Things are starting to really heat up in terms of exploration of the moon."
In the December issue of New Space, McKay argues that America should set up a permanent manned research base on the moon. Here's why:
1. Maintaining U.S. influence
For decades, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were the only nations to land on the moon. Now several new players—including China, India, and private companies such as SpaceX and Moon Express—are interested in visiting the moon, and they're demonstrating the technological capabilities to do so.
If America wants to have a say in how the international community treats the moon, McKay says, it needs to be active there.
"Will private companies be allowed to take tourists to visit Neil Armstrong's footprints? How close will they be able to get? And who sets those rules?" McKay asks.
In 2011, NASA proposed a 194-acre (500-meter-radius) "keep-out" zone around historic lunar landing sites. This limit must be honored to win the Google Lunar X Prize, a $40 million award for the first private company to land on the moon, travel on the lunar surface, and beam video back to earth.
Henry Hertzfeld, who teaches space law at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., expressed some concern about NASA's role in future missions to the moon. "We're seeing a lot of partnerships forming without the United States. It may be that we're being left out of something we started because we've pulled back and focused on other things."
2. Paving the way for other applications
The U.S. Antarctic Program, run by the National Science Foundation, provides a good model for how a lunar research base should be run, McKay argues. The U.S. has maintained small research bases in Antarctica continuously for 60 years, and in the process helped to pave the way for Antarctic tourism.
Similarly, a manned science operation on the moon could pave the way for space tourists, mining industries, refueling stations, and burgeoning private industries.
3. Learning more about the moon
Despite being our nearest celestial neighbor, the moon harbors many mysteries, including how it formed. From a lunar research base, scientists could potentially explore the moon's lava tube caves, look for signs of geologic activity, and investigate hints of water ice found in the dark craters of the lunar poles.
"Every year, new things will be discovered on the moon that will raise new questions and spawn new research," McKay says.
4. Assessing the health impacts of living in space
What effect would living in gravity one-sixth that of Earth's have on human health and immunity? Building a lunar base could help us learn more about the effects of disrupted circadian rhythms, isolation, and high doses of radiation—all information that would be useful for future space exploration.
5. Learning how to build and operate an extraterrestrial base
If we ever want to build a colony on Mars, the first step may be to prove ourselves on the moon.
A lunar research base would give NASA expertise in engineering and operating life-support systems, sustainable energy sources, supplying food and recycling water, and troubleshooting while the base is just a three-day trip away—because a base on Mars would be six months away from help of any kind.
Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, does not agree that the moon is a necessary step on the way to Mars. He instead suggests that a base on the moon could be a side application of Mars missions. "Mars is where the challenge is," says Zubrin. "Mars is where the future is."
McKay counters that building a base on the moon is like going camping in your backyard when you're preparing for a camping trip in the Sahara. "If you can camp in your backyard, it doesn't necessarily mean you're ready for the Sahara. But if you can't camp in your backyard, then you certainly aren't ready to go to the desert ... If we can't do it on the moon, there's no chance that we can do it on Mars."
6. Becoming an interplanetary species
If humans are to become the interplanetary species we imagine ourselves to be, then it's time to stop merely visiting other worlds and start proving that we can survive on them, McKay suggests.
NASA's current lunar program consists of three orbiters that are searching for water ice, studying solar wind, and analyzing the moon's tenuous atmosphere. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is seeking out potential landing sites for future manned missions, but at the moment, no such mission is planned.
To date, money has been the biggest obstacle to manned moon missions. McKay says that working with private companies, utilizing innovations such as 3-D printing, and taking advantage of off-the-shelf electronics could make a moon base affordable. "It's not that much harder than supplying and operating the space station," he says.
Hertzfeld added, "If we're going to have human spaceflight, the moon makes the most sense for now."
Follow Sarah Fecht on Twitter.