Many companies and nations have started to develop their plans for getting back to the moon. Perhaps, more than you realize. These plans are serious contenders at getting back to the lunar surface for scientific, and economic reasons. Some plans are further along than others, but given the amount of money, diversity of teams, and growing ambition the 2020s will be a decade of intense competition to get a stake in the ground on the Moon and to “own” the transportation, logistics and communication channels to bring the moon into our economic sphere.
In the 60’s space race was between just two major superpowers – the US and Soviet Union. Contrary to popular belief the race to the moon didn’t start with President Kennedy’s famous speech. For five years after kennedy’s speech, the Soviets had no interest in going to the moon, they remained focused on their own goals of building a space station. America decided to set the finish line of landing a person on the moon, and NASA was the only team in the race until around 1965.
Something similar has happened now, except this time around America is the one playing catch up. China, India and others have been launching to the moon over the last 5 years, and only now, with the Trump plan to go back to the moon is America joining in the race to get back to the moon.
According to The Outer Space Treaty signed by all major space faring nations in the 60’s no nation can claim the moon. However it doesn’t prevent nations from gaining a monopoly position on access to the moon. This is the focus for a new space race.
- Step One: prove there is interesting and profitable opportunities for business and science to be done on the moon
- Step two: control the infrastructure and services required to access the moon – rockets, stations, communications, fuel, food etc. All business on the moon will depend on the infrastructure
- Step three: Profit. Take a piece of the unbelievably lucrative opportunities as they are opened up.
So where do things stand today? Who is making plans to control the moon, and what are the recent and future missions?
Let’s start with China
The Chinese space agency placed a lander and rover on the moon with the Chang’e 3 mission in December 2013. The rover was operational for 3 months and the lander operated for 1 year. In December 2018, China launched the Chang’e 4 mission which had another rover landing on the far side of the moon. The Chang’e 5 mission will launch in 2019 with a sample return objective. These robotic missions fall under the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program which should ultimately culminate with a manned mission currently planned for around 2036.
China launched more rockets than SpaceX in 2018, they have the ambition to take the lead from America in Space. China is ahead of the game when it comes to the race for the moon.
In October 2008, the india space agency ISRO launched their Chandrayaan-1 mission, an orbiter around the moon. This mission discovered vast amounts of water on the moon’s surface and helped to reignite interest in using the moon as a future fueling station. Before this mission the scientific consensus held that the moon was bone dry. This discovery of water was only a decade ago which exemplifies just how much we still don’t know yet about our Moon. The follow up mission Chandrayaan-2 is scheduled to launch in April 2019 and will feature a lander and rover. Who knows what they’ll discover next.
The US government under President Trump has pivoted their space program ambitions back to the moon with the LOP-G (formerly called the Lunar Gateway Project) for which they are seeking partners to build the complex vision of a lunar orbiting space station with docks, hab modules and lunar lander. It would support ongoing missions to the surface of the moon for 2 week durations. First technology test of the Orion capsule will fly around the moon on a mission scheduled for June 2022, followed by an insertion mission of the first components for the Lunar orbiting station in 2024. Much of the missions needed for this return to the moon are still in development and discussion.
The NASA vision for returning to the moon is focused on leveraging commercial partners where possible although exactly what it will entail is not really known yet.
Roscosmos has their Luna-Glob program with the goal of creating a robotic lunar base. The next mission for this program is the Luna-25 currently scheduled to put a lander on the moon in mid-2021.
Japan’s space agency, JAXA has a lunar lander mission currently scheduled for 2021. JAXA is particularly interested in exploring the recently discovered lava tubes on the moon. The ability to robotically land a rover nearby would be a significant technical achievement.
The European space agency doesn’t want to be left out of a return to the moon and lunar exploration is a key goal of several member countries, in particular Luxembourg which has invested heavily in projects focused on the moon. The ESA proposal is to build a moon village, similar in concept to the scientific outpost in Antartica with many nations getting together to build a community. Having the ability to share common infrastructure and with the flexibility to invest as much or as little as any particular nation want to for their own research and development goals.
As far as national ambitions for the Moon go, China and India have, or will have robots on the moon this year, 2019. They are really keenly interested in winning the race back to the moon.
When it comes to private industry, much has changed in the last decade with respect to the commercialization of space. Private companies have dropped space access prices drastically. SpaceX has taken a majority market share now of the satellite launch business away from the traditional players, but there are many other companies looking towards the moon.
The Starship developed by SpaceX is still very early in development and still undergoing redesigns but, SpaceX has committed to do a manned mission around the moon called DearMoon in 2023. While SpaceX mission is focused on getting to Mars with their Starship, Elon Musk has stated that the rocket would be capable of lunar missions for anyone willing to buy a flight.
Jeff Bezo’s space company Blue Origin has stated its ambitions for going back to the moon but thus far has been quite quiet about exactly what their plans include. Jeff Bezo’s vision to move heavy industry into space would necessarily have a large footprint on the moon.
In the meantime, they have partnered with Airbus to create “The Moon Race”, a competition with prizes to help drive small and medium businesses to take on the challenges of lunar development.
Despite the Google LunarX competition ending without a declared winner some of the teams competing for the contest did attract enough investment money and complete enough development to see their projects through to launch. While the goal of the competition was to simply move 500m and take a picture from the moon, many of these companies have bigger ambitions.
SpaceIL, a private company in Israel, plans to launch a lander to the moon in 2019. They have purchased space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for a launch in 2019 and appear to be ready for launch.
A team based out of Germany called PTScientists has with a rover designed with the help of engineers from Audi. They also have a contract to fly on a Falcon 9 rocket with SpaceX in 2019
An American based LunarX prize team Moon Express has their lander plans to be launched on a RocketLab Electron Rocket in 2019.
Astrobotic Technology sponsored by DHL and Airbus, has designed a lunar lander platform for delivering payloads to the surface of the moon. Their first mission scheduled for 2020 on an Atlas V, is currently planned to include 3 rovers from other LunarX teams.
A private Japanese company is one of the companies hitching a ride on the Astrobotic lander. iSpace has received significant private funding and plans to launch several more robotic missions in the future.
With these missions and more in the works it is clear a moon race is already happening. This time a mix of nations and private companies will be competing (and cooperating) with different goals and visions of what to do when we get to the moon. The new private rocket companies have driven down costs and made access to space and the moon feasible even for a startup company to achieve. The nature of this space race compared to the Apollo days is going to be even more exciting.