This week Warwick University’s Think Tank Society welcomed former Conservative minister for Science, Technology and Space Ian Taylor to speak about the perils and promises of Lunar Mission One.
Lunar Mission One is a British-founded, internationally-minded project with the ambitious aim of being the first ever independently started and funded robotic Moon mission. Started on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter, individuals and companies pledged £670,000 (approximately $1million) to fund the formation of a team whose expertise will hopefully attract the estimated one-billion-dollar investment needed to actually get to the Moon. This team includes: RAL Space, University College London, The Open University and many individual brilliant scientists from institutions across the United Kingdom.
“To deeply drill where no one has drilled before” is the mission objective of Lunar Mission One, referring to robotic drilling on the Moon’s unexplored South Pole. The mission plans to use pioneering mining technology to drill 100 metres into the Moon’s surface and access lunar rock up to 4.5 billion years old in hopes of discovering more about how our moon was formed when the Mars-sized body Theia collided with the young Earth.
During the Q&A section of the talk, Ian was asked the very relevant question, “Why are you aiming for the Moon when everyone else (the ESA and NASA) is focused on Mars?” Ian explained how the “been there, done that” attitude towards the Moon belies the importance of the Moon as a base for further exploration of the Solar System. Currently our understanding of the moon is based on a mere scratching of the surface, but Lunar Mission One will hopefully give us the necessary understanding to build launch bases on the Moon.
Ian also spoke about the role that Lunar Mission One hopes to play in increasing public engagement with the sciences. With their three educational partners, The Open University, The Institute of Education, and University College London, Lunar Mission One is working to create resources for the teaching of astronomy in schools using space exploration as a stimulus. In his pledge of support to the project, Professor Stephen Hawking echoed this aim, saying that, “This Mission dares to remind us that some of the most interesting questions yet to be answered about space can actually be answered this close to home. And it makes us wonder about our own place in time, as part of the history and future of the Universe.”
As well as engaging the public’s scientific interest, the project also has a human interest element – time capsules. Drilling 100m down into the surface of the Moon will obviously leave a large hole just waiting to be filled and Lunar Mission One’s proposal is to kill two birds with one stone and raise money by selling space in time capsules to individuals. One can purchase data storage for photographs, music and even DNA.
Not only did he speak passionately about his role in Lunar Mission One, Ian also did not shy away from amusing anecdotes about his time in John Major’s Conservative government and pithy observations about the role of modern politics in space exploration. For example, the story of the final time he pestered John Major for an increased space provision in the next budget and was greeted with the response “If you like space so much, we’ll buy you a one way ticket there!” or Ian’s accurate comment that “Every time you launch a rocket, the costs are literally astronomical”.
Rarely have I heard a politician talk with such enthusiasm and genuine understanding about the impact of space exploration and I hope that Think Tank Society will have the opportunity to hear from him again as Lunar Mission One makes more progress towards the moon.