Thirty-nine years to the day after Neil Armstrong radioed "The Eagle has landed" from the Sea of Tranquility, NASA on Sunday turned its eyes toward the moon, gazing both forward and backward in time.
For the next three days, Silicon Valley will be the base for planning humankind's return to the moon, as more than 400 scientists from around the world assemble at NASA/Ames Research Center for a conference on what type of science should be done when astronauts revisit Earth's nearest neighbor.
It could happen in the decade after NASA retires the space shuttle in 2010 and begins flying a new generation of rocket booster. And it won't be a temporary visit, NASA officials and scientists said Sunday. The United States, they said, needs to focus on creating a permanent presence on the moon, using it as a training platform for missions to Mars and beyond.
"We're going back, and this time we're going to stay," S. Pete Worden, director of NASA/Ames, said in remarks opening the lunar science conference. "This is the first step in settling the solar system."
The conference, hosted by the newly created NASA Lunar Science Institute at NASA/Ames, doesn't start officially until today. Sunday's event at Moffett Field was a celebration for all those who remember exactly what they were doing on the historic day Apollo 11 landed in 1969, and for the generation who hadn't been born yet - those who might take the next steps on the moon.
officials wrestled with the philosophical and technical questions of a return to the moon, scores of kids got a chance to build and fly their own paper rockets and to re-enact their own version of an upcoming NASA/Ames robotic mission that will crash a rocket into the moon to try to discover if there is water there.
NASA also showcased a new generation of scientists, people in their 20s and even younger who are already working on reaching the moon or Mars.
Mary Beth Wilhelm of Fremont is just 18 and won't begin studying physics and astronomy at Cornell University until the fall. But Sunday, the NASA/Ames research assistant spoke on a panel of young NASA experts about the return to the moon.
Wilhelm noted that the far side of the moon would be an excellent place to build a radio telescope, and she weighed in the value of human explorers over robotic probes.
"A human can do in a minute what it takes a robot a day to do on Mars," she said.
American astronauts last visited the moon in 1972, and there are huge questions - both of technology and politics - about how and when astronauts will return. For now, NASA is focused on building the powerful new rocket boosters that could reach the moon and beyond.
Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA/Ames working on the Constellation program - the name of the next generation of human-operated spaceflight - said the space agency needs to develop a whole new culture, along with the new hardware.
"I would argue that long-term planning has been something that NASA has not been very good at," McKay said in a speech to about 200 scientists and members of the public. "We are going to the moon to stay - and to stay means 50 years."
McKay said the return to the moon should imitate the way scientists have explored Antarctica, using an international base at the South Pole as a permanent outpost for scientific exploration.
Before NASA attempts the even more difficult, expensive and remote journey to Mars, the space agency will first have to learn how to do things like grow plants that can recycle human waste in the low-gravity, radioactive environment of the moon, he said. NASA also will need to learn more about how people function and relate in the most remote place where humans have ever lived.
On the moon, NASA can learn "how we get 10 people to live together productively on another world," McKay said.
Moment in history
But as the world's top lunar scientists begin wrestling at NASA/Ames this morning with questions ranging from what kind of astronomy could be done on the moon to the chemistry of lunar dust, the 39th anniversary of Apollo 11's touchdown was a time to remember its historical footprint.
Andrew Chaikin, whose book "A Man on the Moon" was the basis for an HBO television miniseries, asked the audience to recall the sense of wonder people felt at the Apollo voyages.
"This was something that was in the culture; science fiction was becoming reality," Chaikin said. "This was one of the great moments of the 20th century, not just the '60s."