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Happy Birthday to NASA's moon mission

Happy Birthday to NASA's moon mission

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But when do humans get to go back to the moon?

Over 500 lunar scientists are gathered at NASA Ames this week to discuss the U.S.'s most ambitious moon mission since the Apollo program -- NASA's Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LCROSS/LRO).

Launched on June 18 of last year, this mission has sent back, so far, 80 terabytes of data -- almost more than the scientists can handle -- on the state of the moon, which turns out to be a completely different body than the one we'd imagined back in the 1960s and 1970s when we sent astronauts there. (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon 41 years ago today -- July 20).

Instead of being dry, dead and static, the moon turns out to be one of the most extreme places in the solar system. It also has water and ice, which could support humans on the moon if NASA can figure out how to capture it.

LCROSS, you'll recall, was deliberately crashed into a crater, Cabeus, near the moon's South Pole on October 9, throwing up two plumes of debris that, although they weren't visible from Earth, show that the moon has several elements and compounds -- water, carbon dioxide, sodium, methane, hydrogen and others, some of them probably from comets.

LRO is still orbiting the moon, carrying seven instruments that are taking pictures; mapping the surface; measuring topography, temperature, and radiation, and more.

Some of the LRO pictures that we saw are breathtaking -- the resolution is so good, you can see the hulks of old spacecraft, and Armstrong's and Aldrin's footprints.

But the big question hanging over everybody's heads today is whether and when humans will be able to return to the moon. NASA's budget is being hashed out in Congress as we speak, and -- under pressure from President Obama -- parts of the space agency's human space flight program (Constellation, for one) will certainly be overhauled or handed off to private companies.

NASA scientists and administrators are bracing themselves for whatever Congress and the President hand down. The agency's latest plan, presented today, calls for a series of smaller, cheaper robotic missions (xScouts, which would be run out of NASA Ames) to keep investigating the moon and lay the groundwork for a safe, productive human flight in 2015.

"I like to think that if you can routinely demonstrate you're working on an important problem for the American public and using their investment wisely, it would go a long way," said Mike Wargo, NASA's chief lunar scientist for exploration systems.

Yes, money is tight, and NASA could stand to be more efficient. Competition with the private sector will draw more young people into the space program and will be healthy, at least to a point.

But just when we're getting the best, most tantalizing lunar data that we've ever had, our ability to explore the moon might shrink. All of NASA's LCROSS/LRO data is going into its Planetary Data System, which means the data is available to everybody regardless of what happens to NASA's human space flight program, but that's no guarantee the data will be used.

Wargo told me he routinely meets young people who don't believe we ever went to the moon. They figure the photographs they've seen are fakes. "Come on," he says they tell him when they find out what his job is. "You can tell me."

Despite NASA's flaws, I'd like to see the space agency stay involved in sending humans to the moon and wherever else we're able to go in space. All those graying NASA heads at the Lunar Science Forum today have accumulated years of experience. Don't count them out.

Here, by the way, is a video of the crash of LCROSS. It's exciting to listen to, although there's not much to see. NASA chose the location because it detected hydrogen (and hoped for water), not so the impact would be visible from Earth.

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure