From Sacramento to the moon

Back in the fall, NASA slammed a rocket into the dark side of the moon—searching for ancient ice in the lunar soil.

Bites is a total sucker for this kind of story, so when it turned out NASA Ames Research Center astrobiologist Dr. Kimberly Ennico was coming to talk about the mission at Sacramento City College, Bites headed back to school.

Ennico was one of the architects of the mission, called the LCROSS, or Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite. She spoke at the school on February 19, by invitation of Sacramento Valley Astronomical Society (

LCROSS was really sort of a last-minute project put together by Ennico and her colleagues when it turned out there was a little extra room aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, designed to take the best images yet of the lunar surface.

So, LCROSS hitched a ride, and it was in many ways a guerrilla space science project—fast and cheap and powerful. “We actually put together a spacecraft in less than two years, with lots of off-the-shelf parts,” Ennico said with obvious pride.

Instead of jettisoning the upper stage of the rocket that launched the LRO/LCROSS payload, the vehicle held on to the spent rocket for the duration of the trip to the moon.

Then on October 9, 2009, at about 4:30 a.m. Pacific time, the rocket “impactor” (about the size of a school bus) was crashed into the moon’s surface at over 5,000 miles per hour.

It hit near the moon’s south pole, where some craters never see any sunlight and the temperatures are colder than Pluto, and where scientists suspected there might be water ice. Close behind the impactor was a probe bristling with instruments, streaming images and data back to Ennico and her colleagues at the project’s mission control in Southern California.

As the second craft passed through the spray of debris kicked up by the impactor, scientists were able to gather reams of information about the contents of the lunar soil—before the probe also hit the ground and died on impact.

Once the data was stitched together, Ennico said the result was clear. “The water is there, and there’s a lot of it.”

NASA once estimated there was about 1 quart of water for every ton of lunar soil. LCROSS showed there’s about 10 gallons of H2O per ton of moon dirt, at least, in that region. Since it would cost $100,000 a gallon to ship water to the moon, mining water for drinking and for rocket fuel is a great option for future moon bases.

And that was the idea during the Bush administration, which spent millions on NASA’s Constellation program. These rockets would take over when the agency mothballs the space shuttle fleet later this year. They were to eventually take Americans back to the moon.

But Barack Obama never liked Constellation. And in his budget in mid-February, he axed the program, saying the money should be used for research and development and education programs.

Now, with no shuttle program, no manned space-vehicle program at all, suddenly it feels like America is going nowhere fast.

Discouraging, but as Ennico noted, NASA needs better rockets. “Experts are saying we’re going to get to the moon and to Mars faster by focusing on research and development,” she said hopefully.

For now, that might mean giving up the moon to Chinese taikonauts, and whatever kind of ’nauts they’re training in India. So be it. Bites will take whatever vicarious trip is available, even if it’s an hour-long journey to the moon from a classroom in Sacramento City College.