Making Water on the Moon
Not so parched? The dry-looking lunar landscape as seen by the Apollo astronauts.
Credit: Dimension Films
Apollo 18: Myths of the Moon Missions
Sept. 2, 2011 --
In the movie "Apollo 18," lost footage taken from what was the canceled Apollo 18 mission to the moon reveals a coverup. NASA buried the mission after astronauts encountered hostile life forms on the moon. The Apollo missions captured the imagination of a generation, so it's no small wonder that fictional accounts -- such as that of "Apollo 18" -- of what happened during NASA's golden age still find new angles on a rich history. Although the Apollo program is a technological and historical legend, as with most stories of heroes and triumph, there have been some embellishments and distortions along the way. Explore the myths, misconceptions and urban legends that color the history of the Apollo missions. (And good news for space enthusiasts: We're not even mentioning the delusion that the moon landing was a hoax.)
We begin with a myth of the Apollo era that was soon squashed after astronauts returned home. Prior to the first successful landing of astronauts on the lunar surface, NASA scientists theorized that their astronauts may have been contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms to which humans would have no resistance. The space agency even enforced a 21-day quarantine for astronauts returning from space. In this photo, Aldrin greets his visiting family via telephone while still constrained in the Mobile Quarantine Facility in Houston, Texas. Biomedical studies conducted following the quarantine period determined that neither the astronauts nor any of the living species that brought along on the mission, including plants and animals, suffered any adverse health effects as a direct result of exposure to lunar material.
"Apollo 18" hinges on the premise that the cancelled Apollo 18 mission was in fact carried out, but covered up after the space agency discovered the presence of hostile alien life on the lunar surface. We all know that in reality Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon never stumbled onto any lunar life. But did Buzz Aldrin, as he appears to claim in this interview for a documentary, spot a UFO while en route to the moon? As Aldrin would later go on to explain following the airing of these comments, not even close. What he actually saw, which he and his fellow astronauts immediately confirmed, was "one of the panels from the separation of the spacecraft from the upper stage."
Image: This is not the original space pen. It
The Million Dollar... Pen?
To paraphrase an old joke: When presented with the challenge of writing in a zero-gravity environment, the United States and the Soviet Union approached the same problem in two different ways. NASA spent millions of dollars developing and testing the space pen. The Russians, on the other hand, used a pencil. In reality, the space pen wasn't developed by NASA, but rather a private company that later sold its invention to both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. A kernel of truth is hidden in this story, however. NASA originally used mechanical pencils and hired a private contractor to supply "34 units" at a price of $4,382.50 in 1965 (around $30,000 today). The public outcry against this purchase led NASA to the cheaper alternative designed by Fisher Space.
Why Was Armstrong First?
Everyone knows that Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon, followed closely by Buzz Aldrin. But how many people know the reason why Armstrong was first? In one version of events, Armstrong was selected as the first man to set foot on the moon so that NASA could symbolically convey the message that civilians would be leading the charge with space exploration rather than the military. Aldrin had a long career with the Air Force prior to becoming an astronaut. This account, however, is a myth. For his part, Armstrong had spent time in the military before joining the public sector as a civilian. So why was he chosen first? The answer is much less complicated: It was his turn to be commander after rotating through as backup commander during Apollo 8.
Americans these days look back on the legacy of the space program with pride and admiration. This singular technological achievement is unrivaled to the day. Although Americans may look back fondly at that glorious era, their 1960s counterparts weren't quite as supportive. The Apollo program is widely believed to have been popular during its time, but polling data taken from the era suggest that simply wasn't the case. Throughout the entire era, surveys consisted showed that less than 50 percent of the American public favored the program. Even after Armstrong took his first steps on the moon in 1969, only 53 percent of American surveyed said the accomplishment was worth the cost, according to a report by Space.com.
Could the real reason astronauts haven't returned to the moon be because NASA has simply forgotten how? According to this rumor, propagated by writers including Terry Bisson and astronomer John Lewis in his book "Mining the Sky" in 1996, NASA simply lost its blueprints to the Saturn V rockets. NASA was quick to point out that microfilm of the blueprints is still in storage at Marshall Space Center. So why can't NASA rebuild the Saturn rockets? As explained in 2009 by NASA Lunar Science Institute director David Morrison, many of the companies that manufacture the parts that made up the Saturn V have since gone out of business and the parts are no longer available. Besides, rocket technology has advanced somewhat since the Apollo era.
Credit: U.S. Department of State
As much as we'd all like to believe it's true, NASA did not invent Tang during the Apollo missions. In fact, the instant drink mix had been invented during the 1950s by General Foods Corporation. When NASA adopted it during John Glenn's initial venture into space and for subsequent journeys, the missions popularized the product. Given the kinds of innovations NASA dreamed up during the Apollo years, these misconceptions have become common. Other developments around the same era, such as Teflon and Velcro, are also falsely attributed to the space agency.
Space Pen Savior?
Would you believe the space pen was responsible for preventing Aldrin and Armstrong from being stranded on the moon? The Fisher Space Pen folks would like you to think that's the case, but that's not exactly how it happened. When Armstrong and Aldrin returned to the lunar lander after their historic space walks, the astronauts discovered the "the ascent engine's arming circuit breaker was broken off on the panel," according to Aldrin. In other words, a circuit needed to power the engines to get the Apollo 11 astronauts off the moon simply wasn't working. To complete the circuit, the astronauts didn't use a space pen but rather an ordinary felt-tip marker.
NASA is developing a lunar rover to find and analyze water and other materials trapped in deep freezes at the moon’s poles and to demonstrate how water can be made on site.
Slated to fly in November 2017, the mission, called Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction (RESOLVE), will have a week to accomplish its goals.
To stay within a tight $250 million budget cap -- including the rocket ride to the moon -- project managers are planning to use solar energy to power the rover’s systems and science instruments. However, sunlight on the places where water and other volatiles may be trapped only occurs for a few days at a time.
“To do a mission of any significance (at the lunar poles) it would take nuclear power, but we don’t have that kind of money,” said William Larson, a recently retired project manager at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
“Solar-powered missions are more affordable and that’s the way we’re going to try to go,” Larson said.
That leaves scientists with long to-do list and a very tight timeline.
Upon landing on the moon, the rover would have about 2.5 days of sunlight to get started searching for hydrogen, then hibernate for two days of shadow. The rest of the mission would play out over the next five days of sunlight and would include drilling about 1 meter (3.3 feet) deep into the ground to extract a sample for mineral analysis.
The sample also would be heated in hopes of producing liquid water. Finally, the rover would demonstrate how oxygen can be chemically pulled out from the lunar soil and mixed with hydrogen to produce water.
“The primary mission is lunar ice prospecting, but since we’re there and since we don’t know if we’ll find water, we wanted to also demonstrate that we can extract oxygen from the lunar soil,” Larson told Discovery News.
“That is the most challenging timeline of any surface mobility mission NASA has ever attempted before -- and we’re trying to do it on the cheap,” he added.
RESOLVE builds upon the ongoing Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mapping mission and the 2009 impacts of its companion LCROSS spacecraft and rocket motor into a permanently shadowed crater called Cabeus, located near the moon’s south pole. LCROSS is an acronym for the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite.
Material blasted above the crater’s rim during the impacts and other analysis showed the crater contains about 5 percent frozen water. The origin of the water, however, remains a mystery.
RESOLVE may provide some answers. The rover’s science instruments are designed to analyze hydrogen isotopes in any water recovered, an experiment that may at least narrow down the options of where it came from. The theories range from water-rich comets and asteroids crashing onto the surface to indigenous water supplies inside the moon that were transported during past volcanic eruptions.
The mission also is expected to provide some ground truth for ongoing efforts to determine what minerals are on the moon.
“The polar regions of the moon are extremely cold. This is of very great interest because there’s the possibility for trapping a wide range of volatiles in these areas,” said lunar scientist David Paige, with the University of California at Los Angeles.
“We know it’s cold enough on the moon to support these deposits. The question is are they actually there,” he said.
Larson outlined the RESOLVE project at the Lunar Superconductor Applications workshop in Cocoa Beach, Florida, this week. NASA plans to partner with the Canadian Space Agency on the project. A simulated mission was conducted in Hawaii this summer.