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There was a time when only government agencies had the ability to blast rockets into space, or send missions to worlds beyond our own. These days, countries around the world are preparing to send missions to the Moon. They are joined by a rash of private ventures.
Their interest goes beyond exploration. They see a chance to make money, by supplying launch or human transport services, including tourism. Some hope to begin exploiting space resources like energy, or rare minerals.
Over 30 private robotics teams are now vying for the 30 million dollar Google Lunar X-Prize, a contest designed to spur the building and launching of rovers equipped to explore the lunar surface.
It was inspired by the Orteig prize that sent Charles Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic Ocean more than 80 years ago. That feat helped launch the civil aviation industry. The sponsors of this prize hope it will unleash the entrepreneurial spirit into space.
To many, lunar exploration is the first step in fulfilling one of the great promises of the space age: to send humans to the moon and beyond to permanently live and work in space.
Preparations for that day are taking place right now aboard the international space station, where astronauts are developing a whole new way of living. To stay healthy, for example, they are working out routines for exercise and nutrition to keep muscles and bones from weakening and thinning in zero gravity.
Just as important, they are developing technologies that ensure clean air and water, shelter from solar radiation, and flexible space suits to work and explore in hostile environments like the moon.
Our fascination with the moon, Earth’s traveling companion, goes back to the dawn of humankind. Its true nature began to come into focus four centuries ago. Galileo Galilei had heard of an instrument built by Dutch opticians that was capable of “seeing faraway things as though nearby.”
In many ways the first modern scientist, Galileo saw this new instrument as a tool to help settle a long standing question. What was the nature of the heavens, and how did the world of men fit within it? To some philosophers, the moon was a perfect, crystalline sphere of divine substance, free of Earth’s imperfections.
Galileo, with his telescope, saw a more familiar reality. He noted mountains and valleys on the moon, features like those of Earth.