Review: Return to the Moon (Tumlinson and Medlicott)

Interest has recently accelerated in human visits to our celestial neighbor, as is evidenced in this book with its wide collection of essays on the subject, in the new
NASA program and announced plans from almost all the other major
spacefaring nations, but also in the coincidental simultaneous
release of another book with the same title, from astronaut
Harrison Schmitt. Both books are worth the serious interest of
anybody wondering what all the fuss is about.

Tumlinson and Medlicott’s book brings forward the views of a number of
people who have been advocating for a lunar return for some time, and
this collection is a good way to get to know them. The arguments put
forward are forceful and at times contradictory, but for somebody
familiar with space development ideas, they are also quite familiar.
Tourism, astronomy, precious metals, materials for space-based solar panels,
or simply oxygen as a propellant provide economic incentives
for lunar development. Many of the essays argue for a strong
private component to lunar development, making use of lunar resources
to earn profitable returns here on Earth.

Others of the essays see a strong government responsibility, at least
in early phases, driven largely by scientific interest in the Moon itself,
and by the potential, as General Pete Worden points out, for the Moon
to be the ultimate site to develop risky technologies that might
be too dangerous to pursue on Earth. Beyond
the private/public debate and the surfeit of justifications, a number
of the essays also express strong opinions on engineering details
such as design of rocket boosters and lunar landers. One suspects
that if space advocates figured out a way to actually
agree on things, we might have returned to the Moon years ago.
And to some extent these debates are moot for now, as NASA lays out its
plans and other nations seem determined to follow.

A few of these essays provide longer-range views on
space settlement and development. As Andrew Chaikin writes, the
Moon will be a “catalyst for humanity’s transformation into an
interplanetary species.” Frank White here talks of the “Overview Effect”,
the profound importance to a human being of physically seeing Earth
as a “small planet suspended in space,” and he and several others
here envision thousands of people having that direct experience in
permanent settlements on the lunar surface.

Several essays delve into the legal issues – what current law applies,
and what new law would be useful, to a lunar colony? Alan Wasser
lays out his “Space Settlement Initiative” proposal, to fund
space development with lunar land grants based on proven performance, a
variant on the “prize” approaches recently in the news. A noteworthy
essay from Robert Richards points out that the Moon is really
two distinct destinations: the near side and the far side. The far
side would be much more isolated from Earth, and potentially much
better preparation for the eventual colonization of Mars.

Inspirational color illustrations, not directly referred to in the text,
are provided in the middle of the book; a “lunar declaration” that it’s
time to return comes at the end, along with a section of Moon Facts. One
notable omission is an index – with the diversity of topics the table
of contents isn’t always sufficient to locate relevant discussion.

This book should definitely be read by anybody who questions the point
of NASA’s current plans for a lunar base. As astronomer Yoji Kondo writes in
two of the essays here, science and exploration need to go together,
each will enable the other, and robots and humans together will expand
the human experience beyond anything we now know. Whether through NASA,
the private sector, or the work of other nations, humans will be
living and working on the Moon in coming decades and, as the best of
these essays makes clear, that small step will change humanity forever.