Two months ago, former NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski ascended Mount Everest, carrying a lunar rock brought back by the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the moon 40 years ago tomorrow. Along the way, he endured hardships like those experienced by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin: bulky equipment, rocky terrain and a lack of oxygen.
The effort made Parazynski the first astronaut to summit the world's highest peak. It also gave him a deeper understanding of why his boyhood heroes of Armstrong and Edmund Hillary sought the unknown.
"Any time you explore ... you learn things you never expected," said Parazynski. "Any country that doesn't explore is going to ultimately recede."
That faith that exploration brings its own rewards is the fundamental rationale behind NASA's efforts to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. By most other standards — cost, safety and scientific gain — the benefits are dubious.
"Sure, we could go back. But is that the best thing we could do?" asked Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon. "I would never stoop to call kicking up dust on the moon a stunt, but it certainly wasn't a pioneering effort that led to sustainment."
In a few months, President Barack Obama is expected to decide what to do about NASA, an agency he has said is "adrift." Perhaps the most pressing issue is its moon mission, an effort so riddled with problems that an independent panel has been asked to review it.
That panel, led by retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, will present its findings next month. It could help answer a question that has divided the nation's space community for years: Why send astronauts back to the moon?
Making the decisionNASA's decision to return to the moon began with the 2003 Columbia accident.
The tragedy killed seven astronauts and shook confidence in the aging space shuttle. Investigators urged that NASA test every screw, tile and wire in the shuttle fleet if it wanted to fly beyond 2010 — a costly undertaking.
Instead, then- President George W. Bush told NASA in January 2004 to retire the shuttle by 2010 and build a new spacecraft capable of reaching the moon. The goal was to establish a lunar outpost as a steppingstone for an eventual mission to Mars.
"Returning to the moon is an important step for our space program. Establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the cost of further space exploration, making possible ever more ambitious missions," Bush said.
To make that vision a reality, former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin selected a new spacecraft system, dubbed Constellation, and set up an office to prepare for lunar missions.
John Olson leads that effort. Like many NASA employees, he was inspired by the Apollo 11 landing. "It taught us that nothing is impossible. That might be the single greatest benefit that came out of it," Olson said.
Currently, he is weighing 13 moon-exploration scenarios, beginning with a four-astronaut reconnaissance trip, possibly to its south pole.
That would be followed by deployment of new moon rovers. "You have a couple of lunar rovers and a lander — that is a de facto outpost," he said.
The new rovers will be able to range hundreds of miles, so explorers could search for ice and explore the lunar surface. "We are interested in the poles, because we believe there is water there," he said.
Seeing Apollo's legacyAs to the possibilities for science, Olson and others point to the legacy of Apollo. The 842 pounds of rocks brought back have resulted in more than 10,000 scientific papers, including one suggesting that water was once present on the moon.
"The moon has so much to teach us about the evolution of the Earth," said Alan Stern, a planetary scientist and former NASA official. Its geology is unchanged since it was formed 4.6 billion years ago when Earth collided with a planet-sized object.
Stern said astronauts are essential to do complex research, such as drilling deep into lunar rock to probe its geologic history. "There is no foreseeable robot technology that can drill a mile into the moon," he said.
But others question how much could be gleaned from another moon expedition.
A 2007 report by the National Academies concluded that the "expense of human exploration cannot likely be justified on the basis of science alone" and instead suggested that NASA pursue a "vigorous near-term robotic exploration program."
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology delivered a similar analysis in December: "If we are primarily concerned with finding what's out there, then robotic spacecraft and other technologies can help us find out at a fraction of the cost and risk. ...
"If an innate human curiosity is used as a justification for space exploration in general," it added, "it fails as a justification for human space exploration."
The paper's lead author cited Spirit and Opportunity, the unmanned rovers that for more than five years have sent back data and nearly 250,000 pictures from Mars.
"Why aren't those things running around on the moon?" asked David Mindell, director of MIT's Space Policy and Society Research Group. "Why is it just exploration when you just send a person?"
No economic benefits? The same MIT report also downplayed the economic benefits of a moon mission, noting there are "presently no known natural resources in space that can be profitably exploited."
Space historian Roger Launius said this was one of the biggest reasons the last lunar flight launched in 1972.
"I guarantee you that if they found something that could be turned into dollars ... we would never have left," he said.
NASA officials, including Olson, have raised the possibility of mining helium-3, an isotope found on the moon that one day could provide clean energy. But the technology to harvest and return helium-3 to Earth remains in its infancy.
Olson also argues that another mission would develop new technologies. Among the Apollo spinoffs, NASA says, are improved kidney-dialysis machines, better home insulation and cooling suits for race-car drivers.
But Congress remains skeptical, especially in the midst of the worst economy since the Great Depression.
At the confirmation hearing for Charles Bolden, Obama's pick to run NASA, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., warned that NASA must justify its funding: "NASA is not a given," he warned.
Much of the financial concern centers on Constellation, which includes the Ares I and Ares V rockets and the Orion capsule. It faces financial and technical challenges and may not be ready for a first planned launch in 2015.
And government auditors have estimated that NASA's moon plans would cost $230 billion through 2025 — or most of the funding at an agency budgeted at $18.7 billion next year.
"If you are going to the moon, you need a long-term political commitment and you need to understand that the price may not be what the estimate is," said Cristina Chaplain, who tracks NASA spending for the Government Accountability Office.
'Tool of global diplomacy'Perhaps the most lasting impact of the Apollo program was its effect on global politics.
By beating the Soviet Union to the moon, the United States helped bring about an end to the Cold War.
And that's the best justification for another moon mission, or any human mission, said Lou Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society.
"We only have human spaceflight to serve national and geopolitical interests," he said.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama appeared to acknowledge this. In a paper outlining his space policy, he voiced support for a moon mission "to use space exploration as a tool of global diplomacy." Obama added that this would serve as "a precursor in an orderly progression to missions to more distant destinations, including Mars."
Those future possibilities are cited by many supporters of a lunar mission. But Launius says the U.S. can't afford to go it alone and future manned spaceflights ought to be carried out with international partners, a view Aldrin shares.
"Working together on some large international technological enterprise, you are not shooting at each other," he said.
"The linking of nations together to engage in peaceful technological assault on the moon is a good foreign-policy initiative."
But is that sufficient reason to go back to the moon? While acknowledging that Apollo 11 still stands as "a monument to the triumph of the human spirit," Launius had no answer.
"That's a valid question," he said, "which I have yet to hear anybody at NASA satisfactorily answer."
Mark K. Matthews, who reported from Washington, can be reached at email@example.com or 202-824-8222. Robert Block, who reported from Cape Canaveral, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 321-639-0522.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun