Back to the moon Long time, no see: Who would have expected the return voyage to take 25 years?

January 12, 1998

IN ITS EFFORT to make space exploration a less expensive proposition, NASA has turned its attention to Earth's closest heavenly neighbor -- the moon. That it has waited 25 years to get around to another moon mission may be a strong hint of what the space administration expects to find -- not much. The probe will look for polar ice.

When Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon in 1969, taking that one giant step for mankind, it was assumed that regular trips to the satellite would become commonplace. It didn't happen. The sixth and last manned mission to the moon occurred in 1972. NASA has since invested most of its money on space shuttle flights and plans for a space station.

With space station Alpha getting closer to reality, but at a high price, NASA has learned to get more out of its receding budget with less costly robotic missions. Two probes arrived at Mars last year, another is on its way to Saturn. Why not also send a robot to the moon? At $63 million, the trip is a bargain by NASA spending standards. Alpha may cost $100 billion.

The little spacecraft called Prospector should complete its 240,000-mile journey Sunday and begin a year of orbiting 60 miles above the moon. If it finds frozen water, there will be renewed talk of establishing a lunar base. One theory is that the hydrogen and oxygen in the water can be used to make rocket fuel on the moon. Some say the moon could become an off-planet gas station.

The laymen among us, though, have to wonder why NASA waited so long to pursue this possibility if it really thought it feasible. The year ahead may be more significant for the beginning of the five-year orbital assembly of Alpha and subsequent retirement of the 11-year-old Russian space station Mir. That is, unless Prospector discovers someone has set up housekeeping on the moon in our absence.

Pub Date: 1/12/98

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