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05 January 2023

The New Race to Reconquer the Moon

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On 25 May 1961, 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 26 March 2019, then 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? Although the goal of 2024 is now unattainable, 50 years after the last manned mission to the Moon, we are already emersed in a new global race to reconquer it, although for 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 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 humans to the Moon.

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

With the end of that space race, the drastic cuts to NASA’s 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 target for NASA: since Apollo 17 in 1972, no US spacecraft device has landed there (with the exception of the LCROSS mission, which impacted with the surface in 2009 to test for the presence of lunar water). 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 has been forgotten: the Moon has become the dream goal for the emerging space powers. China has successfully conquered the lunar surface with its Chang’e 3, 4 and 5 missions. India failed with its first attempt, Chandrayaan 2, as did the Beresheet mission launched by Israel, which came to an abrupt end in 2019 when it crashed into the lunar surface. But in 2023, India’s Chandrayaan 3 and the United Arab Emirates’ Rashid rover will attempt to land on the Moon; the latter will do so aboard the small Japanese lunar lander HAKUTO-R from the lunar exploration company ispace, which also carries the Japanese mini lunar rover SORA-Q. If successful, HAKUTO-R will become the first spacecraft from a private company to land on the Moon.

The emergence of private companies is a sign of a powerful growing trend: the so-called New Space companies, the new private space operators such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, among others. In 2019, Bezos presented Blue Moon, a robotic spacecraft project with which the founder of Amazon intends to transport cargo to the Moon. As for Musk’s Starship launch vehicle, the largest and most powerful ever built, ambitious goals have been set for 2023: its first orbital flight and an uncrewed Moon landing, but also a private trip around the Moon with civilian passengers. The latter is a mission that is hard to see materialising in 2023, but there is no doubt that SpaceX is optimally positioned for the lunar reconquest.

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

Meanwhile, the stakes for other space powers have been rising. China intends to launch crewed missions by 2030, while the European Space Agency (ESA) is promoting the concept of a Moon Village built by robots, although the European approach is to collaborate with other partners in this endeavour. Numerous companies and space agencies have turned their eyes towards the Moon, and Russia has revived its lunar programme with the launch of the robotic lunar lander Luna 25, scheduled for 2023.

It was almost inevitable that the US would end up joining this new lunar frenzy. In 2017, then 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 taken by surprise when the Trump administration decided to cut the deadline to 2024, before the end of the president’s second term if he were re-elected.

The first woman on the Moon

This new objective is embodied in the Artemis programme, named after Apollo’s twin sister, which aims to take the first non-white person and the first woman to the Moon. The project includes the construction of Gateway, a lunar orbital platform for international cooperation that would act as a transport hub, in addition to the new Space Launch System rockets, built in partnership with the Boeing company, and NASA’s new Orion spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, in which the ESA participates with the service module that supplies power and propulsion.

The Orion crew module. Credit: Rad Sinyak, NASA

The first uncrewed mission, Artemis 1, lifted off on 1 November 2022 and returned on 11 December after orbiting the Moon for six days, making it the crewable spacecraft that has travelled the furthest distance from Earth. But the goal of carrying out the first crewed lunar landing in 2024 is already out of the question: that year a crew will repeat the journey of its predecessor in the Artemis 2 mission, and for the first lunar landing of Artemis 3 we will have to wait until 2025 or 2026.   

These are all ambitious goals, but for some they come too late: “2024 is not too early, it’s far too late. We already did it 50 years ago,” science fiction author B.V. Larson, a computer scientist and former consultant for DARPA, the Pentagon’s technology research agency, tells OpenMind. But NASA has something today that 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 only guaranteed for the first three missions to the Moon.

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 a pipe dream, 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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