08/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Is NASA Spacing Out?

Today is the 40th anniversary of the first lunar walk, and, not counting the late Michael Jackson, it's been almost that long since the last moonwalk. Is it time to do it again?

For those of us who were around during the momentous moonwalk on July 20, 1969, it was one of those things you remember with clarity -- where you were and what you were doing. As it happens, I was in Italy, and the report of "la luna" event came to me, you might say, in an unorthodox fashion.

I'd been back-packing across Europe, and one day, a hundred miles or so south of Rome along the Mediterranean coast, with the sun setting and no affordable lodging in sight, I landed for the night on an empty beach's soft sand. The following morning, the chatter of little school girls awakened me. They asked (in Italian) where I was from, and when I told them the United States, they excitedly pointed to the sky and exclaimed, "La luna! La luna!" The night before had been the historic moonwalk. I guess you could say hitching through Europe in the '60s put me a bit out of touch.

The ~842 pounds of lunar souvenirs -- rocks, core and soil samples, et al. (such as those that astronaut Alan Bean is holding here) -- have expanded our scientific understanding, but should manned space exploration be the agency's focus now? (NASA)

Flash forward 40 years and NASA is contemplating a new set of manned missions to the Moon and then Mars. I have to wonder if they are the ones who have lost touch now.

One Giant, Incredible Leap

When Neil Armstrong, the world's first moonwalker, and Buzz Aldrin, a close second, stepped down on the lunar surface, they made history, meeting President John F. Kennedy's daunting challenge "of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth." It was without a doubt one of our greatest feats of engineering and of daring. So much so that lots of folks seem to have trouble accepting that it ever happened.

One in four Britons polled believe the Apollo 11 moon mission was a hoax and a similar percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have reportedly "expressed some doubt that humans set foot on the moon."

Compare that to the recent poll numbers showing only 49 percent of Americans (or almost one in two) believe that people are contributing to global warming, and you have an interesting juxtaposition of statistics: if so many people doubt the lunar landings (and the video proof of them, however hazy the vintage footage appeared before its new restoration), is it any wonder that so few people believe we humans are a primary driver of climate disruption? Maybe climate scientists haven't done such a bad job of communicating the facts of global warming after all.

And Lots of Good Science

The U.S. Apollo moon missions have been (and continue to be) a scientific boon, providing unique information about our closest space neighbor just 238,855 miles away, the inner solar system, and even our own planet.

Armstrong and Aldrin along with pilot Michael Collins brought home with them dark-colored igneous rocks, called basalts, that were some 3.7 billion years old! (Subsequent missions through 1972 added to our lunar rock pile.)

These rocks and other lunar samples have provided insight into the composition of the material floating around in space when the Earth first formed, and support the theory that the Moon formed from debris ejected from the Earth after a collision with a space object roughly the size of Mars. Not bad for a little once-in-a-blue-moon (and then some) nine-day excursion.

No Moon Shots Recently But NASA Has Been Busy Looking Back Home

Though we immediately think of space when we hear "NASA," the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, established in 1958, is also a leader in research aimed at understanding and monitoring the Earth.

As I wrote about last month, NASA images have provided us with vital information about heat waves, hurricanes, volcanoes, forest fires, ocean productivity, ice cover, air pollution, coal ash sites and penguin populations. Critical satellites monitor all sorts of data important to our everyday lives -- everything from temperature and weather to carbon dioxide and ozone levels, aerosols, sea levels, solar output, and soil moisture. This is stuff that's not just important to us scientists but to all of us on the blue planet.

Do Manned Space Expeditions Make Sense?

Now there's a plan afoot to again send humans where only 12 men have boldly gone before. The new mission would first send people to the Moon for weeks and weeks at a time, and graduate to a manned mission to Mars.

NASA satellites are important to the study of Earth. (NASA)

Cool, just like landing men on the moon was cool back in the '60s and '70s, even to a long-haired college student crisscrossing Europe. But I have to ask, given today's budget crunch and the advancements in robotics, is cool enough of a reason to send humans to the moon and beyond?

Don't get me wrong; learning about the planets and stars, dark matter and dark forces is one of humanity's greatest intellectual endeavors. Not only should we fix our gaze on space; we must. But manned missions are not the only way to learn about our world. Virtually all of the aforementioned information about the Earth was obtained using unmanned space-borne platforms. And unmanned missions to the planets have provided us with a wealth of information (at a fraction of the cost) -- for example we've been able to do detailed, complex analyses of soil from Mars without the benefit of a human hand.

Deciding what NASA does with its funds has always been somewhat of a zero sum game. Doing more of one thing generally means doing less of another. And there's a clear trade-off between high-visibility, manned, space exploration and unmanned missions that are able to bring home the scientific bacon without all the hoopla.

Already grumbles from my colleagues at NASA indicate that the push to prepare for a Mars mission is siphoning off funds from already beleaguered Earth-observing programs. Given all the issues we face right here at home (did anyone say climate change?), this doesn't make sense.

So NASA, congratulations on the 40th anniversary of America's first manned lunar landing. It was a tremendous accomplishment. But as you think about your next big feat, consider sending Hal instead of Neil or Buzz.

Read more about NASA, the Apollo Moon Missions and Little Old Earth

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