Tuesday, March 10, 1998

Next rest stop 240,000 miles away
By Jason L. Ables

Do you hear it? Like a benevolent siren from a darker, colder shore the news beckons, 'Come over here. There is water here.'

After generations of searching, from Ptolemy to Sagan, we have spotted sanctuary on foreign lands. The Lunar Prospector, small unmanned craft sent to survey the moon by NASA, has been sending data back to Earth since January. Last Thursday NASA announced a historic discovery. There is water on the moon.

What can be said except, 'Wow!'?

Of course the lunar water is not like the glassy curls tempting surfers off the California coast. It is frozen, lying in the form of millions of tons of ice. And of course there is the fact that it lies about 240,00 miles from the nearest penguin or Arctic Tern. Yet it is there nonetheless, in all its life sustaining glory.

"We have found water," said NASA scientist Alan Binder in a San Jose Mercury News story. "It means human life can expand to the moon."

It is an interplanetary oasis awaiting a traveler, an arctic frontier awaiting an explorer, someone like us - humans.

It is so easy in this age of municipal water companies pumping our showers full of tension easing H20 to forget just how important water is to us. Nowadays we even look to the soggy hillsides, curse 'El Niño,' and think we have too much water.

After all if you want some water, just turn on the tap. We have convenience stores full of Evian. Outside the grocery stores we have machines that magically dispense water by the pre-filtered gallon. We jet-ski in reservoirs full of it, wash our cars in it, flush a few gallons of it per day, and if we are smart we are drinking our recommended eight glasses of it a day.

Yet our viscous bliss cannot hide the truth; we take water for granted - a potentially life-threatening mistake because to a living being, water is life. Us humans have bodies that are about 75 percent water. That water needs to be replenished daily to the tune of about 3 quarts. A person can survive several weeks without food, but just days or less without water.

In a recent article Mark Jenkins for Men's Health Magazine put it bluntly. Without water and "hiking in hot weather, most (people) will be dead in 36 hours. Other than oxygen and warmth, water is the(sic) most essential physical requirement for survival."

So it was both monumentally important and wondrous to learn there is water on the moon. Not only can the lunar water be used for drinking, but it can also be broken down into its primary components, hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen and oxygen are the chief ingredients of rocket fuel and oxygen is of course what humans need to breathe.

'What is the big deal?' some may ask. Why don't the astronauts just take the water with them? Well, on the Apollo and Shuttle missions they do, but those are relatively short missions. For any kind of real stay on the moon (or in space), from a practical standpoint, it quickly becomes impossible to take enough water.

Some quick bone-head math. My roommates George and Hiccup (a couple of fancy-tailed goldfish) live in a ten-gallon aquarium. That sucker weighs close to 100 pounds, but it contains only enough water that a typical shuttle crew of seven people (drinking their three quarts a day) would go through it in two days. A small outpost of 20 people on the moon would need 450 gallons a month just for drinking, almost 4,000 pounds of water. That is a lot of weight to lug around and represents close to 10 percent of the Space Shuttle's total payload capacity.

So unfortunately, for any kind of real lunar activity beyond just landing, planting a flag, hitting a golf ball and then splitting, we are going to need a watering hole.

Our African ancestors, who so many millions of years ago walked out of the Oldavai gorge, knew we needed watering holes to survive. They found first one then another in their long march across continents and through history. Now we have looked skyward and found one of our own.

I guess some people may still wonder why we would want to go to the moon at all. Water or no water it is still just a cold rock in space devoid of shopping malls and cable television. And I personally know more than a few who think any money spent on space exploration could be better spent here on Earth.

Well I suppose one could fall back on Edmund Hillary's famous line, "because it is there." I have always liked that answer because it points to one of the grand and undeniable characteristics of human beings - we explore. It is in our blood just as sure as a toddler set down in a living room will take off through the front door given half a chance.

But I think the attraction of going to the moon is rooted something deeper than just it just being "there," than it just being another place to explore. Today, just as in Hillary's day, Everest is still there to be sure, but who among us has ever seen it in person?

But the moon, by contrast, is tied to our planet in a cosmic dance, destined to orbit our home world until the expanding sun in its dying throes violently swallows both it and Earth. All of us have seen it. From the book of Proverbs to H. G. Wells "First Men in the Moon" we have read of it and wondered. It cannot be ignored.

Writes Andy Walton of CNN, "So close and so visible, the moon mocks us and piques the curiosity of scientists and laymen almost to the point of insanity."

No doubt about it, it is in our nature to dream of the moon.

With this latest news I imagine little boys and girls looking up at the moon now and saying, 'I want to live there when I grow up.' And, you know what? They just may, because now we know, there is water up there.


- Jason L. Ables is the Opinion Editor of the Golden Gater