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Simple Science: Houston, we've got problems

This week in science, we discuss humanity's infatuation with Earth's only moon, the recent successes and failures of traveling to the lunar surface and the promising future of space exploration. 

When you reach for the moon, it's almost guaranteed that something will go awry. 

To infinity 

Throughout history, the moon has been worshiped by hundreds of religions, used in rituals, viewed as a god, dictated calendars and determined horoscopes. Humanity is so fond of our moon that we even claim to see a face in the cold, gray rock. It is a lunar deity that appears in our sky only when it's dark, lighting the way and controlling our waves. 

With humanity's innate curiosity, it was inevitable that we would try to explore the ethereal object in the sky. Getting there, however, would be the biggest road (space) block. For a long time, it seemed impossible. 

Then, the Cold War began, and with it came the Space Race. Outer space became the playing field for a technological competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. However, the finish line kept changing and the race seemed neverending. 

May 25, 1961, spurred on by the need to win, President John F. Kennedy declared that by the end of the decade, America would land a man on the moon. NASA hit the ground running. 

Eight years later, in 1969, humans did what had seemed impossible and set foot on the heavenly body. American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped off Apollo 11 on July 20 at 8:19 p.m. Armstrong's first steps on the moon were witnessed by nearly 600 million people around the world. 

To this day, the U.S. remains the only country to have put men on the moon. Between 1969 and 1972, 12 men walked on the lunar surface as a part of NASA's Apollo Program. No human has set foot there since, leaving "moon walks” up to rovers and other robotic entities. 

However, NASA recently created the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative in 2018. CLPS is a symbiotic relationship between NASA and small private businesses, in which NASA funds the creation and launch of unmanned lunar landers. Currently, NASA is supporting the ventures of two companies, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology and Houston's Intuitive Machines. 

These partnerships allow NASA to focus on sending humans to the moon while still supporting beneficial scientific endeavors. A successful mission through CLPS would mark the first private business to land successfully on the moon. 

The first attempt occurred Jan. 8, when Peregrine launched out of Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a course toward the moon. Engineers at Astrobotic Technology built the craft through CLPS, hoping to be the first U.S. spacecraft to grace the moon since 1972. 

However, the situation became dire when a fuel leak developed hours after launch. Despite attempts to charge the probe's batteries through solar power, Peregrine was forced to proceed with a safe and controlled reentry back to Earth. 

In other words, Astrobotic chose to destroy its rocket and everything on it to avoid further damage. Included in the destruction was Carnegie Mellon University's "Iris," a lunar rover built by 300 CMU students, and a strand of George Washington's hair. 

“Peregrine has flown so Griffin may land," Astrobotic stated in its final update following the uncompleted mission. The company ended its statement with: "Ad luna per aspera," which means "through hardship to the stars."

Astrobotic's Griffin Mission will launch in late 2024 and will carry NASA's ice-drilling VIPER rover

However, the U.S. isn't the only country facing bad space luck. 

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) — essentially Japan's version of NASA — began in 2003, continuing the country's exploration of the stars that began with the launch of its first satellite in 1970.

Jan. 19, Japan's unmanned SLIM, which stands for "Smart Lander for Investigating Moon," touched down on Earth's moon. With this landing, Japan officially became the fifth country to successfully land a spacecraft on the lunar surface. 

JAXA's SLIM team was over the moon when SLIM touched down successfully, but problems began when the spacecraft's solar panels began to malfunction. SLIM's fate remains uncertain, as this power is crucial to JAXA's mission. Luckily, the two mini rovers aboard SLIM deployed safely and are operating as planned. 

And beyond…

But, there is hope yet for humanity, as NASA plans to change the over 50-year dry spell of humans on the moon by 2025. Earth's moon is around 238,900 miles away, a space so large that 30 Earths could fit between us and the celestial body. 

NASA's Artemis program aims to close that distance. Already, the company has seen success in its first phase. Artemis I landed on the moon on Dec. 11, 2023, the first step toward sending humanity back to the moon and eventually to Mars. 

The next step is Artemis II, which will send four American astronauts to the lunar surface. Including the first woman and first person of color to grace the moon's surface. 

Despite setbacks, space explorers remain optimistic about the future of cosmic travel. Even if we have to go to the moon and back, humanity is set on exploration, scientific discovery and success. 


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