Following in the Moon-steps of the pioneers
12 July 2000The scientific quest to better understand Earth's natural satellite, its composition and its evolution in a wider planetary context was at the centre of the second day of the 4th International Conference on Exploration and Utilisation of the Moon (ICEUM4). "The Moon is a laboratory, just waiting for us to move in!" exclaimed one lunar geologist eager to obtain more data on the formation of impact craters.
Upcoming missions, such as SMART-1 with its higher spectral and spatial resolution imaging, should well serve him and his colleagues in other lunar science fields. ESA's first ever mission to the Moon, was another focal point of the day. It was described in detail by the principal actors of the project and members of its science teams. A recently delivered quarter-scale model greatly helped them with their presentations.
As ensuing questions showed, there was great interest in this original mission, with its innovative technologies present in spacecraft, its science payload and the unconventional flight scenario in which SMART-1 will use its electric propulsion to spiral out from Earth with a series of thrust and coast phases until it is captured by the Moon's gravity.
One listener asked whether SMART-1 was sure of being caught by the Moon. He was reassured by Project Manager Giuseppe Racca who reminded him that the 15/17 month cruise phase would allow flight controllers to get the spacecraft to the right place and at the right time.
The question was perhaps prompted by an earlier presentation, of a historical nature, in which the very first satellite to be launched towards the Moon was evoked. The Russian Lunar 1 had missed its target by some 6000 km.
This overview of past lunar exploration was given by Alexander Basilevsky, one of Russia's lunar pioneers. It delighted the conference participants. His tongue-in-cheek risumi of the political race to the Moon during the cold war years was concise and abounded in anecdotes. It was illustrated with many photographs of the Soviet craft that had made the headlines in the early and late 60s.
As a geologist, Basilevsky had been involved in the selection of eventual sites for a Soviet manned landing. "I used all the information that I could obtain, and I can now admit that we acquired data from American missions in not very legal ways!"
Basilevsky's page of lunar history concluded with some statistics and a philosophical note. When one compares the lunar efforts of the two rival powers of that epoch, the result is practically equal: 29 spacecraft launched to the Moon by the Soviets with 21 successes and on the American side 22 successful missions for 27 attempts.
Alexander Basilevsky then expressed the conviction that the early lunar studies of the 60s and 70s had laid the foundations of comparative planetology. "With these early lunar efforts, mankind also proved that it could leave and travel beyond Earth. This was achieved in the context of a political race but it still concerned human beings."
He concluded with a final anecdote. "At celebrations in Moscow to mark the 30th anniversary of Sputnik" - recalled Basilevsky - "a former advisor to President Eisenhower told me that he personally missed those cold war days. 'To spur on space projects - had said the American - we still need a race; today we sleep too much!'"
The third day of the ICEUM4 conference will continue with presentations of future lunar projects, such as the Japanese Lunar-A and Selene missions, the Lunasat project, and the American private LunaCorp venture. In the afternoon, splinter sessions will concentrate on the many scientific issues of lunar exploration.