Yes, humans should be going to the moon and yes, Canada should play a major role

Canada has been a world leader in satellite telecommunications, Earth observation, and space robotics — why shouldn’t Canada continue to be a leader?

If we want to learn more about our own planet, we must look at our closest neighbour

Back in February, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would join the U.S. Lunar Gateway — a space station in lunar orbit — and mission to the moon. (AFP/Getty)

As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first time humans stepped foot on the moon, the eternal debate about space exploration remains as fresh as ever: Why should we go back to the moon, and why should Canada play a role? 

Fifty years on, landing on the moon is no longer a race between two countries. With the rise of commercial space, as well as smaller space agencies with lunar missions in countries such as India, China and Japan, a moon landing is no longer just for the elite. 

Back in February, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would join the U.S. Lunar Gateway — a space station in lunar orbit — and mission to the moon. Our government will invest $2.05 billion over 24 years for Canada's space program.

While this brought a lot of excitement to those supporting the #DontLetGoCanada campaign — a movement encouraging Canada to hold onto, and build off of its contributions to space knowledge — it prompted others to question why we should bother going back to the moon. 

For starters, I should note that I cringe every time I hear the words "going back to the moon." Why not going forward? The notion is to go to the moon, Mars, and beyond. The moon in our backyard is a playground for questioning, testing, learning, building, and moving forward. 

Going to the moon is now much more than the race it was 50 years ago. The Apollo-era missions, as well as some more recent missions such as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, have provided us with a vast amount of data, new knowledge, and even more questions than before. 

We now know some permanently shadowed craters and regions on the moon, mainly close to the south pole, contain volatiles and water ice deposits. The elements found in these volatiles could be used in producing fuel or as oxidizers in propulsion engines. They could possibly even be used in producing water for the astronauts or other industrial and life supports. 

A mosaic of the moon from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, centred in the middle of the South Pole-Aitken basin. (NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

The South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin, the oldest and largest impact basin on the moon, contains two-thirds of the total permanently shadowed regions on the moon. None of the Apollo missions ever visited this region of the moon and we still do not have a precise age for this basin. 

Now, you might still be asking yourself: Who cares about how old the SPA is or what the bombardment rate on the moon looked like? 

The moon, in the absence of any weathering or tectonic activity, acts as a time capsule for events happening in our region of the solar system. It is safe to say that the moon and the Earth have experienced similar bombardment histories. A lot of the Earth's history has been erased due to different geological factors such as erosion or weathering. 

So to learn more about our own planet, we must look at our closest neighbour. Changes in bombardment rates could have interesting implications for the evolution of life, and the history of life such as extinction events and evolution of new species. In our search for the next habitable planet, a better understanding of the formation and history of the moon and Earth are critical.

Space technologies at home

If you're still not convinced, if or don't care much about the history of the moon or Earth, or evolution of life on Earth, or finding Earth-like planets, consider this: You are still reading this article on a device that is connected to the internet — perhaps on your mobile phone? 

You carry space technologies in the palm of your hand every day. How about your favourite pair of running shoes? Your memory foam mattress? Anti-glare filter on your glasses or screens? Programmable pacemakers, house insulations, water purification process? These are all examples of space spin-offs. Investments in space exploration go beyond landing humans on the moon, and affect more than just those space enthusiasts. 

As to our role: Canada is a leading country in robotics. Canadarm2 built by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) out of Brampton, Ont. assembled the majority of the International Space Station's (ISS) modules, moved several tonnes of material, and supported astronauts during their spacewalks. This Canadian contribution to the ISS is also reason why we have Canadian astronauts aboard the ISS. 

The proposed Canadarm3 will have similar benefits for the Lunar Gateway. Additionally, the Canadian funding for the space sector will support smaller businesses and industries and provide more opportunities for postgraduate degrees. Canada is a world leader in satellite telecommunications, Earth observation, and space robotics — why shouldn't Canada continue to be a leader?

What I look forward to the most is another picture of our pale blue dot from the moon, hoping it will inspire the next generation to dream bold and to go to places no one has been before. It should also serve as a reminder for the responsibility we all share in taking good care of our planet.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


Dr. Sara Mazrouei is a planetary scientist, educator and a science communicator.


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