On July 16, 1969, at 9:32 a.m. Eastern Daylight time, Apollo 11 launched from Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Four days later, on July 20 at 4:17 p.m., the lunar module touched down on the moon. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were the first – something to remember and to celebrate.
The Apollo program, from Apollo 11 in 1969 to Apollo 17 in 1972, (with the exception of Apollo 13) delivered astronauts to the moon, trained in field geologic methods, to collect samples that have revolutionized our understanding of the moon’s and the Earth’s geologic history.
Astrogeology, Then and Now
Apollo 17 transported the only trained geoscientist, Dr. Harrison Schmitt, to the moon.
Jack (to the many within AAPG that know him well) represented the transition of the NASA program from observation by trained laymen to sophisticated scientific analysis – a transition that benefited from his insights into which samples to collect and his observations to understand the history and origins of planetary systems other than the Earth. Dr. Schmitt’s unplanned collection of the “orange soil” sample completely reset our understanding of the moon’s tectonic history. He is a founder of AAPG’s Astrogeology Committee and remains as a committee liaison.
The celebration of the Apollo 11 landing reminds us of the role AAPG and our members play in leadership, technology and innovation. Our members include key engineers and scientists involved in programs to explore the moon, direct and manage the Mars rover programs and lead investigations of the outer planets and their moons. The interesting transition we have all witnessed over the last decade of private enterprise taking a major role, if not the lead in developing launch systems and vehicles for space exploration, has opened up additional opportunities for our members to apply their technical expertise to identify means, methods and opportunities for successful endeavors outside Earth’s atmosphere.
The 2013 AAPG Memoir 101, “Energy Resources for Human Settlement in the Solar System,” edited by William A. Ambrose, James F. Reilly II and Douglas C. Peters, opened a new vista for our exploration joie de vivre.
A new and insightful understanding of how and why we will participate in extraterrestrial activities came out of the astrogeology session at the 2019 AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in San Antonio, where it was shown that water will be the new petroleum (energy) resource for off-Earth activities. Water and energy will drive off-world exploration efforts, allowing us to produce rocket fuel and breathing atmosphere from the disassociation of water into hydrogen and oxygen. Exploration of the moon and Mars will be enabled by the discovery of significant ice deposits on the moon, Mars, and even Mercury, clearly providing us fuel for exploration and support of permanent bases in space.
We don’t need to abandon our petroleum chemistry as exploration of the carbonaceous asteroids, the moons of Mars and the hydrocarbon atmosphere of Titan all provide opportunities for expansion of our involvement in future exploration, exploitation and development of the outer solar system. The buzzwords of “In Situ Resource Utilization” (ISRU) are now the mantra of using the resources available from space to support and expand our activities in space.
To Big Business and Beyond
Are there economic returns that will drive our efforts beyond Earth’s surface?
According to a 2013 analysis of the entire Apollo program by Jerome Schnee of Rutgers University’s Business Administration Department, “The Economic Impacts of the U.S. Space Program,” every dollar allocated to NASA during the Apollo program produced $153 dollars of growth and expansion to the U.S. economy.
Jack Schmitt’s Apollo 17 samples and analysis of the lunar regolith identified helium-3 as the energy resource of the future. In his 2006 book, “Return to the Moon,” Jack provided the economic analysis to demonstrate that lunar mining processes can be profitable where the commodity is energy. Even the most conservative estimates of the critical minerals and rare earth elements available in the near-earth-asteroids far exceeds the total cumulative value of mining operations on earth.
Planetary Resources, SpaceX and Blue Origin are today’s Shell, Standard Oil and BP. We, as a society of professionals engaged in the discovery and development of energy and critical resources for our civilization, celebrate the innovation and success represented by the Apollo program.
AAPG has ample reason to be proud of and to celebrate this 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, and proud as well of our many members that are engaged in planetary sciences. We look ahead to where our drive for exploration, understanding and development will take us. We are Explorationists!