They couldn’t be more different personalities. Yet, between them, they took the first steps in mankind’s greatest voyage. Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, has shunned the limelight since his historic voyage in July 1969, and prefers anonymity to star status. In fact, very few Apollo 11 photos show him on the moon, as he carried the camera and is only a reflection in fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldrin’s visor. Eugene Cernan, the last man — so far — to have strolled on the moon is more of a ‘space cowboy’ who never tires of telling you about how members of the ‘order of ancient astronauts’ ventured where no man had gone before. But both share the same passion to return.
“I left a few things up there,” said Armstrong in an informal chat during a visit to Malaysia early this year. “I wouldn’t mind going back for them.” And on cue, Nasa’s announced that human beings will return to the moon by 2020, this time to stay and build a permanent lunar base.
Earth’s brushes with rogue asteroids in the past warn that the survival of the human race could someday depend on our ability to leave this planet. Making a second home on the moon would be the first test of whether human settlements in difficult conditions are possible in alien worlds. The first moon colonists will learn to ‘live off’ the moon to develop a self-sustainable moon station. The lunar south pole, with its permanent sunshine (days and nights on the moon last 14 Earth days) is the most promising site, as solar panels could convert the sunlight into electricity. Cold traps there could also contain gases like Helium-3 that could be used as nuclear fuel, or even water ice (from ancient comet collisions) that would be an invaluable source of food, oxygen and rocket fuel. The remarkable lunar geology even makes it possible to ‘squeeze’ breathable air from moon rocks!
Gravity is important for holding an atmosphere down. Although the moon has a very low gravity — 1/6 as strong as at Earth’s surface — contrary to popular belief, it does have a very thin atmosphere. All the molecules in a cubic centimeter of it would fit inside the period of this sentence. (Molecules in a cubic centimeter of Earth’s atmosphere would reach the moon and back again three times!). This weak gravity would help ‘lunarnauts’ launch missions to explore Mars and the outer solar system.