Extreme tourists may ask for moon Space: Private enterprise's instinct for profit and an adventurer's sense of excitement might be required to get travelers back to the moon.


You have scaled Hawaiian volcanoes to watch an eclipse. You've bounced in Chinese trucks across the Gobi Desert, looking for dinosaur eggs. You have ridden a mountain bike through the Yucatan to explore vine-choked ruins. So what's next for the extreme tourist?

The moon?

It could happen, though the trip might depend more on private enterprise than government. Now that the Cold War is over, Congress' enthusiasm for man in space rises no higher than a scaled-down space station. It might require private enterprise's instinct for profit, and an adventurer's sense of excitement and curiosity to get travelers back to the moon.

Perhaps that's the way it has always been. After the government paid for trailblazing by Lewis and Clark and other explorers, and offered federal land grants to get things started, it was the lure of money, opportunity and adventure that populated the West.

A group called the X-Prize Foundation -- led by the likes of lunar explorers Buzz Aldrin and Harrison Schmitt, and space visionary Arthur C. Clarke -- wants to offer cash prizes to kick-start orbital and lunar tourism, just like the cash prizes that spurred aviation in the 1920s. Foundation Chairman Peter H. Diamandis has proposed up to $10 million for the first suborbital flights that take tourists at least 60 miles into space.

Writing in the National Space Society magazine Ad Astra, Diamandis says the spacecraft must be low-cost and reusable. They must also return their passengers "substantially unharmed." Just in case, Diamandis wants Congress to waive liability for prize sponsors.

A Lunar Adventure Tour would surely be like no other, for the moon is a dead and hostile place. A night there lasts 14 earth days and averages a minus-240 degrees Fahrenheit. The average daytime temperatures would boil water on earth.

There is no atmosphere, and therefore no sound and no blue sky. It is always black, but more stars become visible at night, when the sun's glare is gone.

There is no water, unless venture capitalists find cometary ice frozen in the perpetual darkness at the bottom of the south pole's Aitken Crater. There are no gas stations either, until someone builds solar-powered furnaces to extract oxygen and hydrogen from the lunar soil. The two gases could fuel a trip home, making possible smaller, cheaper transports. Solar power is available only 14 days a month, unless some power company builds solar collectors on the heights above the Aitken Crater, where the sun circles endlessly, just above the horizon.

Alan Wasser, vice president of the National Space Society, has called Aitken "the most valuable real estate off earth, a site for the first permanent human settlement on the moon." It is the only piece of lunar real estate, on a globe the size of Africa, where there is both permanent sun and permanent darkness, and maybe a vast lake of water ice.

"It will be a fascinating place for people to live or visit, this strangely lit mountaintop, standing just above the moon's darkest valley," he writes in Ad Astra.

The trip from earth will take three days, plenty of time for a history lecture. Lunar scientist Paul D. Spudis could draft the lecture from the chapters of his new book, "The Once and Future Moon."

He writes that most scientists who have studied moon rocks believe that the moon was born in a titanic collision. More than 4 billion years ago, they say, when the solar system was still under construction and crowded with debris, earth was struck at an oblique angle by an object the size of Mars -- an event tagged "The Big Whack."

The hit knocked earth's spin axis 23 degrees from perpendicular its orbit, the angle that gives us our seasons. Scientists believe that the impact also vaporized a chunk of earth's mantle and ejected it into space, where it quickly cooled into a cloud of droplets. Over tens of thousands of years, the cloud consolidated into a spherical body and settled into earth's orbit.

Heat generated by this crushing consolidation turned the moon into a molten ocean of magma. But being relatively small, it cooled quickly.

Lighter, brighter, aluminum-rich minerals crystallized first and rose like "rockbergs" to the surface to form the crust. But darker basalt lavas continued to break through for a billion years. They filled the floors of the dark "seas," or maria, we see from earth today -- the eyes and mouth of the Man in the Moon.

Most of the volcanism and cratering that has sculpted the moon was finished 3.1 billion years ago, about the time one-celled life began to appear on earth. Today, the place is solid nearly to the core and geologically quiet.

Cratering is rare. One of the last big hits formed the bright, L.A.-sized Tycho Crater 108 million years ago, a time when dinosaurs might have seen it. Meteorites as big as cars still hit every 100 years or so, Spudis says. But tourists who go would be most vulnerable to dust-sized micrometeorites, whose high speeds make them deadly. There is no sheltering atmosphere like earth's to burn them up.

Eons of impacts have crushed, fused and churned the moon's rocky crust like beach sand on Labor Day, creating a thick "regolith" -- a blanket of rock, fine dust and glass, and "brecchias," which are older rock bits fused by heat.

The result is a rounded landscape, not the craggy, mountainous scenery depicted in our childhood comics. Tourists would see rolling hills and smooth contours. Astronauts found it disorienting.

"The crystal clarity of pure vacuum and the lack of recognizable landmarks confuse the mind and make it very difficult to judge distances on the moon," Spudis says. Boulders that look close may be miles away. Big craters close by may be missed behind a subtle rise. Without navigational aids, tourists would get lost.

The lunar sky might help. To adventurers on the "near" side of the moon, the home planet always hangs in the same place. The farther south you wander, the higher it rises in the sky. Go east, and earth drifts west, and vice versa.

Explorers on the "far" side (it's only the "dark" side 14 days each month) would never see earth. Nor could they call home without first orbiting relay satellites overhead.

And before you go, remember this is not precisely an unspoiled wilderness. The place is littered with wrecked and abandoned spacecraft.

Since the Soviet Luna missions in 1959, more than two dozen Soviet and American robotic spacecraft have crashed or landed there. The manned Apollo missions left behind six sets of landing legs, five intentionally crashed landing modules, three moon buggies, and an assortment of experiments, flags and golf balls.

Pub Date: 10/11/96

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