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We Will Go Back to the Moon!

But it might take a while.

Photo: Corbis

Forty-five years ago this Sunday, Neil Armstrong flubbed his line – he was supposed to say “one small step for a man” – and stepped onto the Moon. Over the next 41 months, twelve astronauts followed (some literally) in his footsteps. Then we went home. We haven’t been back to the lunar surface since 1972, the year Atari took off and Tricky Dick was sworn in for the second time. Now, with the future of space travel largely in the hands of private companies, would-be lunar landers will have to be patient, comforting themselves with the fact that when we go back, “we” will be a much larger group of people.

NASA, which has spent the last forty years commuting from Florida to low orbit, has had its budget shaved and its purview widened. The goal is Mars or science. A visit to the moon isn’t necessary to expand the map, collect samples, or scare the Russians, so they’re not doing it. Still, it would be awesome. Only roughly a third of the world’s population had the opportunity to witness the last landing. The other sixty percent of us deserve a chance to marvel at the scope of human accomplishment.

But the private companies beginning to offer space travel packages aren’t inclined – yet, anyway – to get into the Moon business. It’s too complicated.

“Space Adventures has no plans to put clients ‘on’ the Moon,” said Stacey Tearne, Vice President of Communications at Space Adventures, Ltd. The reality is that it’s easier to get to the dark side of the Moon than to its surface, which is precisely why Space Adventures, to quote its marketing material” “Will fly two private citizens and one professional cosmonaut on a free return trajectory around the far side of the moon. They will come within 100km of the Moon’s surface.”

A spokesperson for Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the much-hyped company already delivering cargo to the international space station, offered the following response to a request for comment: “SpaceX has no plans to go to the moon. Sorry!” And XCor Space Expeditions, which is based in California, is focused on orbital and suborbital private trips. Still, Tearne says would-be astronauts shouldn’t give up hope.

“With the commercial availability of both suborbital and orbital vehicles, we expect to see in the next 5-10 years a sharp increase from the hundreds who have traveled to space to thousands,” she said. “In the next 50 years, we expect to see a space-based economy with a myriad of destinations for short-term stays and eventual settlement.”

In other words: Space is a big place and the moon will one day be a popular destination, a sort of 81-billion-ton roadside attraction.

That’s fun to think about, but you’re probably wondering how you will walk on the moon before you need a cane. The best bet is a bit of a long shot. Seattle-based LiftPort wants to run supplies back and forth between the surfaces of earth and moon using a tethered cable system that would allow for soft landings and the human transport. That’s could be a very long, very awkward elevator ride.

Rocket and elevator technologies are both far from the testing phase, so it looks like the 50th anniversary will likely come and go without another human (American or otherwise) bounding across the lunar surface. We may not be obliged to go for the sake of research or even exploration, but after so long it seems like we almost need to go back – if only to prove we can.

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