"In honor of the anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, who passed away today at the age of 95, here is an image of Cape Town, South Africa, from space," the space agency said Thursday on its Google+ page. "This photo was taken on May 9, 2013, by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield while living and working aboard the International Space Station. Hadfield tweeted this image and wrote, 'Cape Town, South Africa and the South Atlantic calling to forever.'"
The picture went out to NASA's 5.4 million Twitter followers as well as the agency's 1.7 million Google+ followers.
Tributes to Mandela came from other quarters of the space effort as well. "Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela," Elon Musk, SpaceX's billionaire founder and a native of South Africa, wrote in a Twitter update. "A man both good and great."
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin voiced a similar sentiment, calling Mandela "a true inspiration and role model for peace and international collaboration."
"We will continue to learn from him," Aldrin said in a Twitter update.
Though there's at least one person flashing the Vulcan "Live Long and Prosper" hand signal, if you look closely at this image of Saturn, the creatures you'll see waving are not extra-terrestrials but Earthlings. That's because when the Cassini orbiter positioned itself to take a picture of the Earth, thousands of people heeded NASA's call to wave back. The image is a collage of about 1,600 photographs submitted by members of the public as part of NASA's "Wave at Saturn" campaign. On July 19, Cassini maneuvered into a location to take a picture of the Saturn system backlit by the sun. Blocking out the sun's rays also allowed Cassini the rare opportunity to take a picture of Earth, which would normally require looking almost directly at the sun and risk damaging the cameras' sensitive detectors. In the backlit picture of Saturn used as the base for this mosaic, released earlier this month, the Earth is visible as a tiny speck when viewed at full-resolution.
There was a technical sputter after LADEE reached orbit: The reaction wheels that the spacecraft uses to orient itself shut down unexpectedly. Over the weekend, LADEE project manager Butler Hine said the problem was traced to pre-programmed fault protection limits that triggered the shutdown unnecessarily. Those safety limits have been tweaked to get LADEE back in working order. Now engineers are figuring out how to keep the glitch from recurring.
So what's the latest from LADEE? "The LADEE spacecraft is currently in an elliptical orbit around the Earth, about 260,000 kilometers [161,550 miles] in altitude," Hine said in an email Monday. "The spacecraft is going through the systems checkout phase, and everything looks good so far."
Hines said the sofa-sized spacecraft will be at the highest point in its current orbit at 12:30 p.m. ET Tuesday, and will drop back down to make its closest approach to Earth at 12:38 p.m. ET Friday. That's when the LADEE team plans to execute an engine burn to boost the spacecraft's orbit.
"We will continue with two more of these elliptical orbits until we are captured around the moon, and do our initial Lunar Orbit Insertion (LOI-1) burn on Sunday, Oct. 6th," Hines wrote. "After that, we are in lunar orbit."
It'll take another month or so to commission the spacecraft for science operations. Then LADEE begins its 100-day campaign to study the moon's thin atmosphere and dust.
Andrew Ashley captured this long-exposure view of the Minotaur 5 rocket streaking over New York's skyline on Friday night, delivering NASA's LADEE spacecraft to orbit. "Great job, NASA!" Ashley tweeted. "Next stop, the moon!"
NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, Expedition 36 flight engineer, uses a digital still camera during a spacewalk outside the International Space Station on Tuesday. A little more than one hour into the spacewalk, European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano (out of frame) reported water floating behind his head inside his helmet. The water was not an immediate health hazard for Parmitano, but Mission Control decided to end the spacewalk early. Read full story
A galactic ring of fire "burns, burns, burns" with starbirth in this image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The brilliant ring circling the core of the galaxy, known as Messier 94 or NGC 4736, signals a frenetic round of star formation inside the ring.
Here's what Spitzer's astronomers think is going on: Gravitational pressure in the oval galaxy squeezes gas into hot, young stars. The radiation from those stars warms the surrounding dust, causing it to glow. This image also shows what appears to be a fainter, bluish ring farther out from the center. These arcs represent the outer extent of the galaxy's spiral arms. The denser areas of Messier 94's disk, shot through with greenish filaments of dust, are tucked in between the inner ring and the outer arms.
The colors reflect different wavelengths of infrared light detected by Spitzer. The readings for this image were collected in 2004, before the space telescope ran out of its coolant, but Spitzer's team released this version of the picture just a couple of weeks ago. It's one of the featured images in our Month in Space slideshow for May.
Salvagers backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos have recovered components from the Saturn 5 rocket engines that powered NASA's Apollo moon missions off the launch pad, more than four decades after they hurtled down to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
"We've seen an underwater wonderland — an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines that tells the story of a fiery and violent end, one that serves testament to the Apollo program," Bezos said Wednesday.
Almost a year ago, Bezos announced that deep-sea sonar scans had located the first-stage engines that were used for the historic Apollo 11 launch in 1969 — the launch that sent astronauts on their way to the moon's surface for the first time. The first stage of the three-stage Saturn 5 was jettisoned once its fuel was spent, and fell into the Atlantic.
It took months to plan the recovery expedition — and three weeks ago, Bezos and the salvage team headed out into the Atlantic on the Seabed Worker, a ship that has previously played a role in recovering sunken treasures.
"While I spent a reasonable chunk of time in my cabin emailing and working, it didn't keep me from getting to know the team," Bezos wrote. Much of his posting was given over to thank-yous for the team members.
The chilly ocean waters preserved the hardware in "gorgeous" condition at a depth of more than 14,000 feet, Bezos said. He noted that it was difficult to make out the serial numbers on the hardware. Confirmation of the Apollo 11 connection will have to wait until the parts are more closely examined.
Engine parts from the Apollo moon effort's Saturn 5 rockets have been in the ocean since the 1960s, but after a year of trying, Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos has brought them to the surface. NBC's Brian Williams reports.
Remotely operated vehicles recovered enough components to fashion displays of two flown F-1 engines. Bezos said the ship was now on its way back to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to offload the artifacts. Bezos Expeditions said the restoration would take place at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center.
"The upcoming restoration will stabilize the hardware and prevent further corrosion," Bezos said. "We want the hardware to tell its true story, including its 5,000 mile per hour re-entry and subsequent impact with the ocean surface. We’re excited to get this hardware on display where just maybe it will inspire something amazing."
Even before the expedition, Bezos and NASA worked out where the artifacts would be going. The first option would go to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs told NBC News in an email. The second engine would be offered to the Museum of Flight in Seattle, the hometown for Bezos and Amazon.com.
"While we have no role in the restoration, we are providing assistance to help identify the hardware through our various history offices and field centers," Jacobs said.
In a statement, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden praised the recovery of the engines as a "historic find."
"We look forward to the restoration of these engines by the Bezos team and applaud Jeff’s desire to make these historic artifacts available for public display," Bolden said. "Jeff and his colleagues at Blue Origin are helping to usher in a new commercial era of space exploration, and we are confident that our continued collaboration will soon result in private human access to space, creating jobs and driving America’s leadership in innovation and exploration."
A salvage operation backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos has brought up historic Saturn 5 rocket components from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, using remotely operated vehicles. Watch scenes from the recovery effort.
An Atlas V 401 rocket streaks into the sky from the Cape Canaveral launch pad in Florida on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013. The spacecraft carries NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-K (TDRS-K) into orbit. According to NASA the TDRS-K spacecraft is part of the next-generation series in the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System, a constellation of space-based communication satellites providing tracking, telemetry, command and high-bandwidth data return services. Read the full story.
NASA / JPL-Caltech / Ken Kremer / Marco Di Lorenzo
A photographic mosaic shows the Curiosity rover's surroundings at a Martian location known as Yellowknife Bay. This view has been assembled from black-and-white images captured by the rover's navigation camera on Sol 132 (Dec. 19). Gaps in imagery of the Martian sky have been filled in, and the whole scene has been colorized. Click here or on the image to see the complete 360-degree panorama.
The cameras on NASA's Curiosity rover have been clicking away over the holidays — gathering enough pictures for a 360-degree panorama of its rocky surroundings at Yellowknife Bay, plus a close-up view showing a "Martian flower" seemingly sprouting from the surface.
The panorama was assembled from pictures snapped by the rover's navigation camera system on the 132nd Martian day of Curiosity's mission on the Red Planet, also known as Sol 132 or Dec. 19.
In this case, the folks doing the assembling are Ken Kremer, a New Jersey-based journalist, research chemist and photographer; and Marco Di Lorenzo, a physicist who's a high-school educator and photographer in Italy. They stitched together the black-and-white images, filled in the gaps in the Martian sky and colorized the scene to reflect what an observer on Mars might see.
We've featured the efforts of Kremer and Di Lorenzo several times before: They're part of an active online community that makes use of the raw images provided by Curiosity and other Mars probes, and then shares them via websites such as UnmannedSpaceflight.com. Even now, the folks at UnmannedSpaceflight are posting plenty of amazing pictures from Yellowknife Bay, including a must-see, zoomable GigaPan version.
Another picture from Sol 132 has stirred up some buzz at the Above Top Secret discussion forum. The picture focuses in on a bright, crumpled object that's sitting on a Martian outcrop, as seen by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI. The translucent shape is reminiscent of a flower's pistils, which led one of the forum's members to call it a "Martian flower."
NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS
An anomalous bit of bright material can be seen left of center in this view captured by Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager on Sol 132 of the mission (Dec. 19).
Update for 8:30 p.m. ET: I initially suspected that the flower was a tiny shred of plastic from the rover itself. Such a shred popped up in October. At that time, experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory surmised that the plastic may have been a bit of wrapping that was knocked loose from the Mars Science Laboratory's descent stage during the spacecraft's August landing. The plastic was thought to have fallen on top of the rover, and then dropped to the ground weeks later.
That's what led me to go with the plastic-scrap hypothesis. However, some of the folks commenting on the pictures noted that the object seemed to be embedded in the rock — which would argue against my hypothesis. So I put in an inquiry with Guy Webster, who serves as JPL's main spokesman for NASA's Mars missions.
A couple of hours later, Webster emailed me the verdict: "That appears to be part of the rock, not debris from the spacecraft."
Mystery solved? It's certainly an intriguing bit of mineral that stands out prominently in the MAHLI picture. If I find out anything more, I'll be sure to pass it along. And if it turns out that flowers are really sprouting up on Mars, you'll know it's time to cue up the "X-Files" theme. Either way, the truth is out there.
The Curiosity rover has released more images of Mars, including a self-portrait created with more than 50 images. NBC's Kate Snow has more.
From left to right, you can see the pyramids of the Pharaohs Menkaure, Khafre and Khufu, with the Sphinx sitting southeast of Khufu's Great Pyramid. (North is pointing toward the upper right corner of the frame.) Several smaller, unfinished pyramids lie to the south of Menkaure's monument, and fields of rectangular, flat-roofed tombs sprawl to the east and west of Khufu's pyramid. There's a golf course right next to the pyramids, and the streets and buildings of El Giza spread out to the picture's right edge.
The Pyramids at Giza date back 4,500 years, which makes them at least a millennium older than the oldest Maya pyramids.
This view of the pyramids from space serves as today's offering from the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which serves up a fresh picture of Earth as seen from space every day until Christmas. Click on the links below to sample the calendar's other visual goodies:
A stereo picture from the Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer aboard NASA's Terra shows an ash plume rising from Sicily's Mount Etna Volcano on Oct. 29, 2002. Wear red-blue glasses to see the 3-D effect.
You need standard red-blue glasses to experience the stereo effect, but once you put on your specs, you're in for a treat: The 3-D view makes it easier to judge the relative heights of the ash plume and the surrounding clouds.
If you don't have special glasses, you can still get a sense of the volcano's power by checking out the 2-D, natural-color view from Terra's Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer. There's even a 3-second QuickTime animation that puts together a series of snaps from the satellite flyover.
This picture of Etna was the focus of today's "Where in the Cosmos" contest on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. It took a few minutes for Hong Yaw Lim, Ryan Posey and Krystyn Allison-In Oneness to identify the mystery volcano, but to reward their efforts, I'm sending them pairs of cardboard 3-D glasses, provided courtesy of Microsoft Research's WorldWide Telescope project. Press the "like" button for the Facebook page and get ready for the next 3-D glasses giveaway after the first of the year.
This is also today's offering from the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which features a different view of Earth from space every day from now until Christmas. For more visual treats, check out the links below:
Forty years ago today, human beings took their last steps on the moon, and had their last look at Earth framed by the lunar horizon. There have been other pictures from the moon since then, of course, but they've all been seen secondhand, based on data sent back by robotic probes. No humans have seen an Earthrise like this one with their own eyes since Apollo 17's crew began their homeward journey on Dec. 14, 1972.
For Andrew Chaikin — author of "A Man on the Moon," the definitive history of the Apollo moon effort — the 40th anniversary of our lunar farewell is a cause for reflection.
When Chaikin was a 16-year-old outer-space fanatic, he attended Apollo 17's night launch at Kennedy Space Center, thanks to a letter he wrote to his congressman asking for a VIP pass. "It was the only part of 'Man on the Moon' that I wrote from personal experience," he told me.
Chaikin said the 12-day mission ended the Apollo program "on the highest note possible."
"By the time of Apollo 17, those guys — not just the astronauts, but the flight controllers and the planners, the whole team — they were really on top of their game," Chaikin said. "It was a spectacular mission scientifically. They landed in an absolutely spectacular place. They took some of the most memorable photographs of all the Apollo missions."
Today, Chaikin posted a video that sums up the significance of Apollo 17 as well as the importance of keeping the moon on our agenda for exploration. The five-minute clip includes an amazing view of the lunar module's ascent module rising into the sky, transmitted from a remote-control video camera that was left on the moon's surface.
Chaikin hopes that astronauts will follow through on the implied promise in the words that Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan spoke just before climbing up from the lunar surface: "We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind," Cernan said.
Five days later, Cernan and his two crewmates, Harrison Schmitt and Ronald Evans, rode their command module through Earth's atmosphere and splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean — marking the end of NASA's last round trip to the moon. Most Americans weren't even alive when that happened. So how many people living today will still be around when the next moonwalk takes place?
"I don't think we realize how exciting it's going to be when we can see the moon rise, knowing that people are living there, working to make humans a multiplanet species," Chaikin says in the video. "And when they come home, they can share with us one of the moon's most precious gifts: the sight of the earth, breathtakingly beautiful as an oasis of life in the void."
To mark the 40th anniversary of the last human footsteps on the moon, "Man on the Moon" author Andrew Chaikin looks back at Apollo 17's explorations and explains why he believes the moon is the solar system's "jewel in the crown," beckoning us to return.
Today's anniversary, recalling our species' grandest voyages, comes amid a shocking episode in Connecticut that highlights our species' violent tendencies. It was that way for the Aurora theater shootings as well, which took place on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Will there ever come a time when the brighter side of our nature, exemplified by the peaceful Apollo program, finally wins out over the dark side? That's one more thing to reflect on over the weekend...
Here are some of your own reflections, selected from the comments you've left over the past week on earlierinstallments of our Apollo 17 coverage:
"December of 2022 isn't that far away. At the rate we are going, and with the uncertainty and lack of focus we are experiencing regarding our manned space exploration program, I'm afraid the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 17 mission will pass without any new footprints having been made on the moon's surface by American astronauts.
"How would our lives be today if after 20 or 30 flights the Wright brothers dismantled their airplane and no one else flew for the next 50 years?
"Are we any better off now for not having continued our manned flights to the moon, and perhaps beyond?
"Will we sleep forever? America must awaken or we will find ourselves trailing behind the new leaders who will pick up the torch we long ago dropped.
"Awaken, American spirit of exploration! Arise as you once did so long ago! I miss you."
"That flight stood out, like the first flight to the moon. I can remember some of the highlights: a geologist looking at rocks, giving a reason to go to space beyond the Cold War; the 'blue marble' and a reminder that we are the one habitable planet in the solar system, so we had better keep this planet healthy. The 'Merry Merry Month of December' was funny, but at the time, also a little bit of concern: There was a worry that the breathing apparatus had a problem. What made him sing was the low gravity; he found it fun to skip on the moon because each jump covered a lot of distance, and that was visible on television (something the moonshot deniers should notice).
"I don't think of them as the last astronauts on the moon, but the most recent. It was a shock when my daughter saw videos of Neil Armstrong's moon landing in school, and I realized that another moon landing had not happened in her life. She is much older now, and my grandson has never seen a moon landing, and more and more funding is being cut, even though information from the space program is still coming to us. Look at the information from the asteroid projects and the xenon rocket. The space program is such a small part of our budget as is. It seems that every time budgets are cut, the space program suffers, schools suffer, and children have less and less to feel proud of."
"The next step for mankind is to become a celestial being. Short of that, mankind is destined to become just become one more extinct species in the vast cosmos. It is only by moving out into that vast cosmos that we see a true reflection of ourselves."
"In 1969, I sat in my sister's living room with my grandmother and watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. My grandmother reminisced about her life as we watched. Her father took part in the run for Indian Territory in Oklahoma. She and her siblings stayed with relatives in St. Louis while her parents built a cabin to house them. She liked to stand in the window and watch the lamplighter come around with his horse and buggy to light the gas street lights. She was educated on the farm by an old Cherokee woman who had been to finishing school in Europe, but forced on the long 'trail of tears' march to Indian Territory in 1838-39. She lost all of her family on the way. My great-grandfather eventually sold the farm and bought a store in town. Grandma married a farmer and moved back to Indian Territory, where she raised nine children without the benefit of electricity. All their water was carried from the creek, light was provided by kerosene lanterns and homemade candles. My children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren can never fully appreciate the grandeur of the moment as seen through my grandmother's eyes. It was an epic accomplishment and I have no doubt that we will return — to the moon and to many other worlds."
"We truly are a great nation at times — if only we'd remember that."
"My fear is that, in this day and age, America will go to the moon (and/or Mars) and treat it in the usual, selfish, utilitarian way. We have already screwed this planet up. Now they are considering going elsewhere. Of course, once we're there, we'll screw that up too. Here's an 'out-of-this-world' thought: Focus on population control and conservation to limit how badly we're screwing up the one and only world we're ever going to have."
"Planting a radio telescope on the far side of the moon, shielded from the radio noise generated by all of our technology, might well provide the kind of scientific bonanza that Hubble has created.
"That's what's lacking in most the moon mission proposals: the promise of being able to carry out some real science. Most of the proponents of a lunar return offer little more than, 'It would be neat to go back and look around some more.' That's a little vague, given the cost and danger involved."
Pb in CA:
"Somebody explain to me why going to the surface of the moon is valuable. There is nothing there of any value. OK, I've heard the idea of building a radio receiver on the far side. But, it would be more cost-effective to build a very-long-baseline radio receiver system using a fleet of satellites that stay in low-moon orbit, and half the time are shielded from earth radio noise.
"If we are willing to accept the fact that robots are much better adapted to carrying out missions in space, then we can have a sustainable, affordable space exploration program. The Augustine Commission got it right in this regard. Personally, I have no problem in thinking of robots as extensions of humans, and saying 'we are exploring the surface of Mars' currently with Curiosity.
"Here are the advantages of robots vs. humans on the moon: - Robots can stay indefinitely - no return trip to Earth - Energy supply is sun power - no need to take air, food and water - Very close communication to humans back on Earth - 2.5-second round trip - Cost of a mission is 1:2000 compared to sending humans
"What is gained by sending humans?"
"I can't believe that we are trillions of dollars in debt and the government is seriously considering cutting health care for the elderly — but we can even consider borrowing money to go to the moon. Clean up the mess, then spend money on 'toys.' America can't afford this right now."
"Yes, we're in bad shape here on Earth. In many ways. But we were born to look out and dream ... to explore. We went to the moon ... we have rovers on Mars, [including] one working years after it was supposed to die. Voyager 1 is reaching the end of our solar system, and will soon be beyond it — our first UFO. If we don't go back to the moon ... go to Mars ... [and] go beyond that someday, when we solve our petty differences here on Earth and put our minds to developing the mechanism to go outward into the unknown, what do we have to look forward to? What do young people have to dream about? When I stand outside on a clear night and look out at all the stars, I often wonder if anyone is looking back. Looking back and dreaming of places unknown and things never before seen, just as I am."
In addition to marking the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17's lunar departure, this Earthrise serves as today's offering for the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which features views of Earth from outer space on a daily basis from now until Christmas. Check out these other holiday goodies:
In the 40 years since NASA's last lunar landing, the moon has had its ups and downs as the target for humanity's next giant leap — but the idea of returning to the moon is on the rise again.
Even though President Barack Obama dissed the moon a couple of years ago as a "been there, done that" destination, there's an enduring appeal to our closest celestial neighbor. Part of the appeal comes from planetary science, part of it comes from the moon's potential as a close-in gateway to the solar system — but a big part of it has to do with the moon's hold on our imagination, which took root before the pyramids were built.
When Apollo 17 touched down on Dec. 11, 1972, marking the final lunar landing of the Apollo program, the moon was the agreed-upon finish line for the Cold War's space race. But now the world has changed, and the case for going to the moon is more complicated.
"I've been referring to the moon as the Rodney Dangerfield of the solar system," said Andrew Chaikin, author of "Man on the Moon," the definitive history of the Apollo space program.
The moon hasn't gotten much respect in the past couple of years: After Obama's comment, the White House effectively canceled NASA's Constellation back-to-the-moon program. Instead, NASA set its sights on a visit to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, and manned trips to Mars in the 2030s. Today, however, there are signs that the idea of going back to the moon isn't that loony after all:
Two dozen teams are bearing down to try winning the multimillion-dollar Google Lunar X Prize, which goes to the first private venture to send a rover to the moon for a trek to be broadcast on live TV. Two of the teams, Odyssey Moon and SpaceIL, joined forces last month in hopes of taking the grand prize by the end of 2015.
NASA has floated the idea of setting up a new space station at a gravitational balance point beyond the far side of the moon, known as Earth-moon L2. The concept is currently stuck in political limbo, however.
John Logsdon, former director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, says Obama's next presidential term could provide the opening for a lunar comeback.
"It's certainly in the air here, that changes in the planning for exploration are coming," he said. "There's enough negative pressure that this asteroid goal isn't working, and enough positive pressure to work with the international community that wants to go back to the moon, that the White House will at some point approve the beginnings of a shift in exploration strategy — in which the moon, or at least the space between the earth and the vicinity of the moon, gets a much higher profile."
One of the early test missions for NASA's next-generation heavy-lift rocket — the Space Launch System, or SLS — would involve sending an unmanned Orion capsule all the way around the moon and back in the 2017 time frame. The first crewed mission, set for 2021, would put up to four astronauts into lunar orbit. "It could just as well be an initial mission to this Earth-moon L2 location," Logsdon said.
In September, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver declared that lunar missions would be part of the agency's grand scheme. "We're going back to the moon, attempting a first-ever mission to send humans to an asteroid and actively developing a plan to take Americans to Mars," she said.
Why go? Chaikin, who has taken on the back-to-the-moon concept as his next crusade, said lunar missions could serve three purposes.
The first aim would be to study the preserved history of the solar system — following up on a scientific story that the Apollo missions were just beginning to uncover. "I really think the moon deserves to be called a Rosetta stone, because it has unlocked our understanding of how we interpret the clues that we see on other worlds," Chaikin said.
Just as importantly, the moon serves as an "Outward Bound" school for farther space exploration. If a mission goes wrong, NASA could bring the astronauts back in a matter of days — rather than the weeks that an asteroid mission would involve, or the months required for a trip from Mars.
And then there's a phenomenon called the Overview Effect, which could conceivably attract lunar tourists a generation or two from now. "The moon is the only place in the solar system where you can stand on another world and have a consciousness-raising view of Earth," like the view that the Apollo 17 astronauts marveled at 40 years ago, Chaikin explained.
But Chaikin also warns against getting bogged down on the moon. That was the problem with the Constellation program. It called for a permanent settlement to be established on the moon in the 2020s. The cost? You don't want to know. Chaikin said it's better to use the moon "to learn about living off-planet" — to learn how to make use of the moon's water, dirt and rocks, for instance — and then move on to Mars.
The way Chaikin sees it, Apollo 17 was a beautiful ending to one era. Now it's time for the next one.
"Apollo 17 ended the program on a spectacular note," he said. "You can interpret that one of two ways. You can say, wonderful, they found a great way to end it. To some people at NASA, it was just the right time to get out. But on the other hand, here it is, 40 years later, and we're still waiting for someone to pick up where Apollo 17 left off. If we can do that, with the same level of scientific exploration, we'll be in great shape."
In addition to marking the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17's lunar landing, the picture of astronaut Harrison Schmitt with the American flag beside him and a tiny Earth above him serves as today's offering for the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which features views of Earth from outer space on a daily basis from now until Christmas. Check out these other holiday goodies: