Remembering the man who sold the moon: Paul Spudis

Remembering the man who sold the moon: Paul Spudis
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If, as many hope, President Donald Trump’s push to return Americans to the moon comes to fruition, the NASA portion of the Lunar Base will be named the Paul Spudis Lunar Science Center if there is any justice. If any one person can be said to have caused America to once again, for the third time in a generation, set out for the moon, it is Dr. Paul Spudis, who recently died suddenly from complications of lung cancer. 

Spudis liked to tell the story about how the flight of Apollo 15 inspired him to change his major from engineering to lunar geology. Apollo 15 was the first mission to the moon that seriously sought to do geological science. The astronauts were trained in field geology by Leon Silver and Farouk El Baz, two eminent scientists. Dave Scott and Jim Irwin put the training to good use with the lunar rover, taking samples from the Lunar Apennines and the volcanic Hadley Rill. Meanwhile, in the orbiting command module, Al Worden studied the moon remotely.

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Spudis specialized in the search for water on the moon, a matter of great importance for future explorers. When the Apollo missions occurred, the moon was thought to have been bone dry. However, the Clementine mission in the early 1990s, on which Paul Spudis was deputy leader of the science team, found the first indications of ice in the permanently shadowed craters of the lunar poles. Spudis went on to be the principle investigator of the Mini-SAR experiment for the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter as well as the Mini-RF on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Both experiments showed further indications of water in the shadowed regions of the lunar poles. Recently, based on the findings of the Chandrayaan-1, scientists announced that ice exists just below the lunar surface at the poles beyond a shadow of a doubt. 

Spudis was also a passionate advocate for Americans returning to the moon. He served on lunar exploration committees for both President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush. He is the author of numerous books on lunar science, including “The Once and Future Moon” and “The Value of the Moon.” He would often offer his thoughts on lunar return and space policy in general on his Lunar Resources Blog and on general lunar science at the Once and Future Moon blog maintained by Air and Space Magazine.

Some years ago, soon after President George W. Bush’s Constellation program was cancelled. Spudis co-wrote a plan to return to the moon that started with robotic landers that would prospect and harvest lunar resources for future human explorers. The plan could be conducted at an affordable pace, avoiding some of the cost problems that helped to sink previous programs to return to the moon. It is a testament to Paul Spudis’ insights that some parts of the plan have been incorporated in President TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE’s return to the moon program.

Spudis, incidentally, was the chief scientist for Moon Express, a commercial company that is building a transportation business between the Earth and the moon. Moon Express is one of the companies seeking commercial contracts to carry NASA instruments to the lunar surface. 

On a personal note, Paul Spudis was a friend of mine. He was an inspiration and a kindred spirit.

In a different reality, Spudis might have studied the moon up close and personal, walking across the surface with his geologist hammer, taking samples, and taking in how various sites on the moon came to be. However, like every other space geologist, Paul Spudis had to admire the subject of his life’s work from afar. Because of his tireless efforts, he may be among the last generation of scientists who are not able to touch the moon.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”