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Special Forces: Semper Sci
Does any science news story in recorded history rival the Apollo 11 Moon landing? Coverage of humanity’s first steps on a surface beyond Earth reached the eyes of hundreds of millions, who collectively held their breath. Just as many people of the 1990s can recall where they were and what they were doing when they learned of Princess Diana’s car crash, countless people of the 1960s globally can recall in detail the moment they saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon.
I stayed up all night July 20–21, 1969, with a dozen other astronomy grad students in the fifteenth-floor lounge of the University of Toronto’s astronomy and physics building. We didn’t even want to blink as the astronauts bounced along the dust- and rock-filled lunar surface. As budding astronomy professionals, we found ourselves equally enthralled by later Apollo missions to explore lunar craters and bring back lunar rock samples. Of course, no one can forget the excruciating suspense of Apollo 13, which riveted live audiences, as well as later movie audiences—even those who could remember the outcome.
These Apollo missions were more than just television (and movie) spectacles. The Apollo program helped researchers solve the long-standing enigma of the Moon’s origin. The evidence indicates (and a NASA animation illustrates) that the Moon resulted from a precisely appropriate collision between a Mars-sized object and primordial Earth. That same wondrous collision led to the transformation of Earth’s atmosphere and interior into just-right conditions to allow for the eventual existence of advanced life here.
Clues to Earth’s First Life
Return missions to the Moon could yield additional breakthroughs, including clues to the remaining mysteries of life’s origin on Earth. Few people realize that the Moon represents our best hope of finding fossilized remains of Earth’s earliest life-forms. Paradoxically, researchers have virtually no hope of finding such fossils on Earth.
Because Earth is so geologically active, fossil structures older than 3.5 billion years have most certainly been obliterated. Tectonics, lava flows, intense heat from multiple collision events (less dramatic than the Moon maker), and ongoing erosion and metamorphosis have shattered the remains of our most ancient life-forms beyond any possible recognition. And yet several lines of chemical evidence tell us that life was abundant on Earth as far back as 3.8 billion years ago.
That evidence comes from the fact that living organisms favor certain elements over others. For example, organic residue (the remains of once-living organisms) contains a significantly higher ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13 than nonorganic material because living organics assimilate carbon-12 much more efficiently than they do carbon-13. The discovery of this carbon isotope signature in the planet’s oldest rocks has led researchers to conclude that multiple and widely diverse bacterial species inhabited Earth as early as 3.8 billion years ago.
Here’s where Moon missions come in. As the Apollo missions helped confirm, the early Earth endured frequent, heavy bombardment by asteroids and large meteorites. These blasts ejected large amounts of Earth’s surface material into outer space, and much of that material settled on the Moon’s surface. In fact, astronomers have calculated that about 20,000 kilograms (44,000 pounds) of Earth material has been deposited on every 100 square kilometers (39 square miles) of the lunar surface. Embedded in that material we can expect to find the fossilized remnants of Earth’s first life.
Testing for Life’s Origin
There are two basic models for how life emerged on Earth. The Bible says that the planet was empty of life and unfit for life (formless and void). Then the Spirit of God came to brood, or hover, over the watery surface. The Hebrew verb translated as “brood” or “hover” is rahap. This word appears in only one other biblical passage, and there it depicts God’s giving birth, nurture, and protection to the emerging nation of Israel. The metaphor is that of a female eagle brooding over her eggs and hovering near her newly hatched eaglets. This word choice would seem to suggest that God was involved in the emergence of Earth’s first life-forms.
This interpretation leads to the prediction that Earth’s first life arose rapidly—and with at least some degree of complexity and diversity—as soon as Earth’s physical conditions allowed for its survival. Naturalistic theories (or models) predict the opposite, specifically, that life arose from a long, slow, hit-and-miss process—first an extremely simple organism that eventually progressed toward greater complexity and diversity. Because these two predictions differ so dramatically, the prospect of future lunar missions seems thrilling. They could put origin models to the test.
Return missions to the Moon would also yield new discoveries about the formation of the solar system—discoveries that could potentially reveal evidence of exquisite design for humanity’s sake. Surface material from lunar-impact basins would provide a more complete and accurate history of the bombardment of inner solar system planets by asteroids and comets. From this information we could learn how the late heavy bombardment revised Earth’s interior and how it affected the core dynamo that generates Earth’s magnetic field. This field just so happens to exhibit the right strength, stability, and longevity to support primitive life, which happens to be critical for the existence and sustenance of advanced life.
A more accurate impact history will help researchers pin down how many mass extinction events were caused by astronomical collisions and how extensive these extinction events were. Such information could point to the probability of a supernatural cause behind the mass speciation events that followed.
Seismic studies on the lunar surface can tell us about the size, structure, and composition of the Moon’s core. Such information will give more details about the Moon-forming impact event and how exquisitely fine-tuned it must have been in order to enhance, rather than obliterate, characteristics essential for life on Earth.
Many of the Moon’s craters at its north and south poles are permanently shaded from the Sun’s rays. Without direct sunlight to warm them, the floors of these craters remain colder than 390°F. Given this stable condition of extreme cold, any frozen gases deposited into these craters via mini comets and meteorites would still be in their pristine state. Thus, samples of polar crater materials would likely unveil the history of volatile gases among the inner solar system planets. Again, detailed knowledge of this history could tell us more about the fine-tuning of the Earth-Moon system—fine-tuning essential for the possibility of advanced life.
Finally, the Moon’s surface is loaded with undisturbed meteorites not only from Earth but also from Venus (as much as 300 grams per square kilometer of lunar surface), Mercury, Mars (as much as 1,800 grams per square kilometer of lunar surface), and Jupiter’s moons. Since missions to the Moon are much cheaper, quicker, and safer—by a huge margin—than missions to other solar system bodies, it makes both scientific and economic sense to focus our solar system research efforts on our nearest neighbor. For example, dollar for dollar and year for year, we may learn much more about Mars by going to the Moon than by journeying to the red planet itself.
The bottom line is that lunar research could go far toward settling one of the great controversies of our time: the creation/evolution debate. NASA’s current plans to launch much more costly, high-risk missions to Mars, Europa, Titan, and Enceladus seem much less likely to produce definitive results. Let’s aim for the Moon. •
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