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Episode 2

Episode 2 of 2

Duration:
28 minutes
First broadcast:
Tuesday 20 March 2012

Can the heroic age of Antarctic exploration show us the way back to the Moon and onto Mars?

One hundred years ago, Scott reached the South Pole. However, more than four decades passed before people went back there. On the Moon, Neil Armstrong took his leap for mankind in 1969 and it has been forty years since the last astronaut left the lunar surface. Presenter Kevin Fong talks to space scientists and historians to find out if Robert Scott's Antarctic exploits provide a road map for future human exploration of the Moon and the planet Mars.

Kevin's quest entails an examination of the underlying geopolitical motivation behind both South Polar exploration and the effort which took humans briefly to the lunar surface. But what would get us back to the Moon and onto Mars - would it be political rivalry, science or transport that was cheap enough?

In times of economic austerity (in the West at least), what scientific questions are important enough to justify exploration of the Moon and Mars? The six short Apollo visits to the lunar surface were enough to crack the mystery of how the Moon itself formed - namely that a Mars sized planet crashed into the early Earth. The molten rock that was blasted into orbit by that collision coalesced as our lunar neighbour.

Sending astronauts back to explore the rocks of the Moon could solve the most important mysteries about the early Earth - when did life first evolve and under what sort of conditions? On the Earth itself all the clues have been obliterated by eons of erosion and continental drift but on the inert Moon there may well be fragments of the primordial Earth on the surface. These fragments were flung there 4 billion years ago when giant space rocks crashed into our young planet, kicking up ejected debris.

As for Mars, the big questions are, is there life there now or did life ever evolve there? If it did originate on Mars, how different was it from life on Earth? If we found life did not arise there, we might wonder whether we are really alone in the Universe.

Kevin asks whether we need to send human explorers rather than expendable robots to tackle these great scientific and philosophical prizes. Assuming that people will do a much better job, who will get them there. Will it be NASA joining forces with the Chinese and Indian space agencies? Or might it be the likes of Elon Musk, founder of the private rocket company Space X - a dot.com and space entrepreneur who has been described as a cross between Bill Gates and Howard Hughes.

Among Kevin's interviewees are Elon Musk and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmidt, the only geologist (so far) to walk and collect specimens on the Moon.

Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker.

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