Stanford U shoots for the moon

Stanford University will have a “major presence” on the moon in the next decade if a group of determined school alumni has its way.

Members of “Stanford On The Moon” met on the university’s campus Oct. 13 along with academics and other alumni who want to see their alma mater take a lead in space exploration by 2015.

Also present was Buzz Aldrin, the second human to walk on the moon.

“[The moon] is a testing ground for our willingness to expand beyond,” said Steve Durst, one of the people who founded Stanford On The Moon in 2000.

Durst, a 1965 alumnus of Stanford and editor of the Space Age Publishing Company, says there are several ways to get Stanford to the moon.

One such idea is the Stanford Lunar Analysis Mission, or SLAM, a university project that would put tiny 10 centimeter-long satellites into orbit around the moon. While these satellites could be used to transmit scientific data back to the Earth, they’re also meant to bring prestige to Stanford University and increase public interest in the moon.

If all goes well, the mission is expected to take place by 2010.

A related project is to send a small, remote controlled observatory to the moon, where it can make astronomical observations without the distortions and disturbances present on Earth.

Bruce Lusignan, a Stanford professor who has been involved with Stanford On The Moon, said that funding for small moon missions can come from advertising.

“In today’s world, if there’s international interest in something . the media will pay for it.” He said that businesses may one day pay to associate their brand names with private space missions.

A more ambitious idea is to incorporate a Stanford University experiment into a future manned mission to the moon. The United States, China and Russia have all announced that they intend to send people to the moon. Stanford On The Moon could take advantage of this revival of government interest in lunar exploration.

But why are governments so keen on the moon today after virtually ignoring it for decades? Some believe national rivalries play a big part.

“Look to the Chinese. [They’ve] said they’re going to the moon,” said Dennis Laurie, president of TransOrbital, a company that plans to deliver people’s personal effects to the moon on an unmanned spacecraft.

The Chinese space program is the most aggressive in the world today, according to Laurie, but it is far from alone. China is cooperating with Russia to send people to the moon and Japan wants to complete a manned lunar mission by 2030. India is also planning to send an unmanned craft to the moon.

According to Laurie, manned missions will come sooner rather than later. “My guess is by 2015, you’ll have it happening,” he said. Durst feels China may pull a surprise of some sort around the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Lusignan believes the renewed interest in moon exploration means the United States can no longer avoid cooperating with other countries in lunar missions.

“I don’t think we have an option of going it alone,” Lusignan said. “If the Chinese in fact co-operate with the Russians and the Europeans, they can beat us in a race.”

Lusignan said cooperation is the more realistic option at a time when NASA’s budget remains low. He sees a crucial role for Stanford On The Moon.

“[T]he most important thing that we’re doing is reopening the doors for international cooperation,” he said.

Stanford has already gained experience by launching and operating the small satellite QuakeSat under the guidance of Robert Twiggs, a professor who spoke at the conference.

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