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19 July 2019

The New Race to Reconquer the Moon

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On May 25, 1961, the then US President John F. Kennedy announced to Congress the goal of stepping on the Moon before the end of that decade. Almost 60 years later, on March 26, 2019, Vice President Mike Pence announced the determination to repeat that feat in just five years, in 2024. Pence did not shy away from the parallels; in fact, he himself evoked Kennedy and stressed that at that time it was also said that it could not be done. But can it be done? Does the will exist? 50 years after Neil Armstrong trod on its surface for the first time, today there is talk of a new global race to the Moon, but at the moment the unknowns are still numerous.

Of course, this was also true in the 1960s. Given that Kennedy’s goal was achieved, perhaps that success has diluted the magnitude of the challenge it posed. But as Charles Fishman details in his recent book One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon (Simon & Schuster, 2019), the first to be surprised at the time was NASA itself: the United States had a total of just 15 minutes of space flight experience and did not yet have any of the necessary technologies to take man to the Moon.

Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on Moon for the first time. Credit. Crédito: NASA

With the end of that space race, the drastic cuts to the NASA budget and a clear change of focus, the exploration of space turned towards the use of robotic probes directed mainly towards other destinations in the Solar System, limiting the presence of humans to low Earth orbit. The lunar surface did not even remain a priority objective for NASA: since Apollo 17, no American device has landed there. For its part, the USSR has also had no presence on the lunar regolith since the Luna 24 mission in 1976.

The dream goal for new space powers

All this does not mean that our old satellite was forgotten: the Moon has become the dream goal for emerging space powers. China has conquered the lunar surface with its Chang’e 3 and 4 missions, and India hopes to get there soon with its Chandrayaan 2, to which we can add the failed attempts like the one of the Israeli Beresheet, which came to an abrupt end last April when it crashed into the selenite soil.

Had it completed its mission, the Israeli probe would have been the first privately financed craft to land on the Moon. But this is only a small sample of a powerful growing trend: the companies of the so-called New Space, the new private space operators such as SpaceX by Elon Musk or Blue Origin by Jeff Bezos, among others. Last May, Bezos presented Blue Moon, the ship with which the founder of Amazon intends to send astronauts to the Moon. For its part, the new rocket that Musk is building would place SpaceX in an advantageous position to place the first humans on the lunar surface since 1972.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, intends to send astronauts to the Moon with the ship Blue Moon. Credit: Blue Origin

Meanwhile, the stakes have been rising. China intends to launch manned missions by the 2030s, while the European Space Agency (ESA) has advanced a concept of a Moon village built by robots. Numerous companies and space agencies have turned their eyes towards the Moon, and Russia has resurrected its lunar program.

It was almost inevitable that the US would end up joining this new lunar frenzy. In 2017, President Donald Trump urged NASA to return to the Moon, to which the agency responded by setting a target for 2028. But as happened in 1961, NASA was once again the first to be surprised when the Trump administration decided to cut the deadline to 2024, before the end of the president’s second term if he is re-elected.

The first woman on the Moon

This new objective has crystallised in the Artemis program, named in honour of the twin sister of Apollo, which aspires to take the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024. The project includes the construction of Gateway, a lunar orbital platform for international cooperation that would act as a transport interchange, in addition to the new Space Launch System rockets, still under development by the Boeing company, and the new NASA Orion spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin and in which the ESA participates with the service module that supplies power and propulsion.

The Orion crew module. Credit: Rad Sinyak, NASA

Although the goal seems ambitious, “2024 is not too early, it’s far too late. We already did it 50 years ago,” says science fiction author BV Larson, a computer scientist and former consultant for DARPA, the Pentagon’s technology research agency. But NASA today has something it didn’t have in 1961, the work already completed by private operators. In this situation and even with competition from China, “the US government has the clear advantage, if they want to do it,” Larson tells OpenMind. But that want requires the approval of the necessary funds, something that is not guaranteed.

A fuelling station to go to Mars

Two other major differences separate the current lunar race from that of half a century ago. Today the idea is no longer to make a mere excursion, but rather to establish a permanent colony that in turn would serve to launch a trip to Mars. And the main reason for this goal is the third difference: the exploitation of lunar resources. Although the possible extraction of helium-3, a candidate for nuclear fusion fuel that abounds on the Moon, has been intensely debated, a more realistic goal is the ice at the lunar south pole, where Artemis intends to land.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has advanced a concept of a Moon village. Credit: ESA

“Ice can be broken down into water, oxygen, and rocket fuel,” says Larson. “Since the Moon’s gravity and escape velocity is so much lower than on Earth, the Moon could provide a perfect fuelling station for exploring and exploiting the rest of the Solar System.” Larson points out that 96% of the weight in the Apollo missions was devoted to the tanks and fuel needed to escape Earth’s gravity.

“We need a clear economic incentive to seriously go into space,” says Larson. “Without building an economic chain, space exploration will not be more significant than our remote research facilities in Antarctica are today.” But the truth is that extra-terrestrial mining is still just an idea on paper. For David Brin, an astrophysicist, NASA consultant and, like Larson, a science fiction author, the whole idea of ​​rich lunar resources is little more than an illusion, and even ice should be reserved for future settlers and not spent on producing fuel. “There is,” he says “nothing else except… tourism.”

Javier Yanes


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