We’re Going to the Moon — Who’s Next?

Fifty years ago, Apollo 11 placed human beings on the Moon for the first time in history, in one “giant step for mankind.” Between 1969 to 1972, NASA landed a pair of astronauts on our planetary companion during six of their seven attempts. No one has repeated the arduous task of placing human beings on the lunar surface since that time. But, that may soon change.

The desire to send space travelers on the Moon was driven by the Cold War, as the United States and Soviet Union raced each other to be the first nation to claim their citizens walked on the lunar surface. Today, the reasons to journey back there are different, and also compelling. We now know the Moon has water, and plentiful supplies of helium-3, an atomic isotope that could provide abundant, safe energy for the inhabitants of our home world.

The next time humans start to land on the Moon, it could be to stay. Image credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

“Unlike Earth, which is protected by its magnetic field, the Moon has been bombarded with large quantities of Helium-3 by the solar wind. It is thought that this isotope could provide safer nuclear energy in a fusion reactor, since it is not radioactive and would not produce dangerous waste products,” the European Space Agency (ESA) explains.

As we start to populate the Solar System, the Moon also offers us a stopping-off point to the planets, where we may be able to harvest water, a precious resource in the harsh climate of space.

Currently, several countries and private companies are developing their own plans to place men and women on the lunar surface. Each organization has advantages and challenges in their quest to bring humans to the Moon.


SPACEX

If Elon Musk could launch a Tesla Roadster into interplanetary space, what’s stopping him from putting a human on the face of the Moon? Well, quite a lot, actually, but the space entrepreneur is willing to take significant risks as he makes his mark in the exploration of space.

In September 2018, billionaire fashion tycoon Yusaku Maezawa announced he would fly around the moon on a rocket system designed by SpaceX. If this comes to fruition, he will become the first lunar tourist, taking a journey over the back side of our natural satellite, although he will never land on the surface. A similar journey was first accomplished by NASA with the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, while the SpaceX mission is scheduled for its journey 55 years later, in 2023.

The Starship from SpaceX lives up to its name. This photo shows the vehicle posed for testing. On a journey to the Moon, it could be mated to a heavier booster. Image credit: Elon Musk via Twitter.

Their Starhopper launch vehicle, being readied for a journey to the Moon, will consist of a Super Heavy booster rocket, paired to a second stage, dubbed Starship. Once in space, Starship will take on fuel, prior to embarking on its journey to the Moon or Mars.

The greatest advantage SpaceX has in the quest to place humans on the Moon is that Elon Musk is willing to take significant risks. The biggest disadvantage they have is that Elon Musk is willing to take significant risks.

Going to the Moon is an uncertain, high-tech venture — the type of challenge on which Musk thrives — but a lot can go wrong, with dire consequences. SpaceX has a brilliant team and a string of accomplishments in space. Musk also has a flamboyancy which drives popular support, as seen in the launch of one of his own vehicles, a Tesla, into space in 2018.

The explosions of a Falcon 9 launch vehicle during launch in June 2016, and on the pad during a static fire test in September 2016, shows the agency is not infallible, but they can recover from serious setbacks.

CHANCE OF BEING NEXT TO THE MOON: 35%


CHINA

In 2003, China became the third country to place humans into space, behind Russia and the United States. In another triumph for their space agency, China set the first lander ever down on the far side of the Moon, the Chang-e 4, at the beginning of 2019.

The Chang-e 4 lander (left) and rover (right), on the far side of the Moon. Image credit: CNSA

The Chinese space program is robust, as that nation carried out 39 orbital launches in 2018, the greatest number of any nation on Earth. The United States came in second place, with 31 launches being sent to orbit.

The Chang’e 5 T1, a prototype for a capsule designed to return lunar samples to the Earth, was sent on a round-trip mission to the Moon in 2014. The Chang’e 5 mission, planned for launch in 2020, is designed to bring samples from the Moon, back to Earth, for the first time since Luna 24 accomplished that task, in 1976.

Additional samples of lunar material would be collected by Chang’e 6, while Chang’e 7 will explore the polar regions of the Moon in great detail. Eventually, China may even build long-term lunar bases on the lunar surface, utilizing 3D printers.

“Chang’e-8 would then carry on the work of Chang’e-7 and additionally seek to test key technologies, such as 3D printing, with a view to establishing a what is being loosely described as a ‘robotic research base’ at the south pole, involving other countries — likely similar conceptually to ESA’s ‘Moon Village’ concept,” Andrew Jones explains for The Planetary Society.

The Chinese could place people on the Moon sometime in the 2030’s, according to several sources, including Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College.

China has a tradition of maintaining political will over the course of decades, or even centuries. This paradigm could provide that nation with a unique advantage not available elsewhere.

In some ways, the Chinese space program got started four decades after the United States and Russia. However, they have knowledge and experience not available to any agency in the age of Apollo.

In the race to be the next group to place human beings on the Moon, the Chinese are coming up fast on the inside, but they may have started too far behind to win. 
 
CHANCE OF BEING NEXT TO THE MOON: 30%


NASA

So far, only NASA has successfully put human footprints on the Moon, providing the American space agency with far greater experience than any other contender. However, NASA has not sent humans past low-Earth orbit since the early 1970’s, as they focused on Skylab, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station (ISS).

A new directive to land a human on the Moon by 2024 is feeding a renewed drive to quickly return humans to the lunar surface. Given losses they suffered in Apollo 1 training, and the losses of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia, the agency is dedicated to safety, and a deadline of 2024 could pose challenges to ensuring a relatively safe journey.

NASA may also prove to be victims of their own system, trapped in a governmental bureaucracy, where nearly-unlimited financial potential is doled out in piecemeal fashion to an agency often caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare of politics and budgets.

One of the greatest gifts of the United States — our ability to hand over control from one set of leaders to another with radically different platforms — could plague our plans to once again walk on the Moon.

The Space Launch System (SLS) will ferry the Orion capsule, and large parts of the Gateway, into space. Image credit: NASA

The Constellation program, announced in 2005, aimed to put people on the Moon by the year 2020. This system consisted of two boosters — one for crew and another for cargo. That program quickly became bogged down over price overages and fell short of its schedule before being canceled by President Obama in 2010. The Orion capsule, designed for Constellation, has since been renewed, but a new launch vehicle, The Space Launch System (SLS), will bring it to space. While Obama directed NASA to aim for asteroids, the current administration has now told NASA to, once again, set their sights on a lunar landing.

The Deep Space Gateway provides the space agency with a road map to the Moon. After lifting off of Earth aboard a three-stage rocket, space travelers would travel to a space station orbiting above the Moon. There, passengers would board a transfer vehicle, ferrying them to the lunar surface. Following their time on the Moon, the crew would board an ascent stage, and start their journey back home across the Gateway.

The creation of such a system would require an extensive reusable lunar orbiter, equipped with significant living spaces, fuel, and equipment needed to support travelers to the surface of the Moon.

NASA is considering several plans for an orbiting outpost, designed to serve as a stepping off point on the Gateway, including this idea from Northrop Grumman. Image credit: Northrop Grumman

“The Gateway can be positioned in a variety of orbits around the Moon, allows for access to entire lunar surface, and supports development of a reusable human lander system. Resiliency and reusability are key for sustainable human lunar exploration, and that’s what the Gateway gives us,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA.

This chart explains how the Gateway system would function. Image credit: NASA

Many NASA projects are awarded on contractors on a cost plus basis, so any financial overruns are charged to the space agency. Contracts for the Lunar Gateway are being awarded on a fixed-price basis, potentially freeing NASA of cost overruns. The private corporations that win contracts will also be required to contribute funds equal to 20 percent of the cost of the Gateway.

The greatest advantages NASA have highlight their experience, and wealth of remarkable talent. The organization has the equipment, resources, and facilities to build the greatest equipment in the world, and once again touch the Moon. Their greatest challenges are likely political, and financial. A clear directive and reliable financing could serve to bring NASA to the Moon once more.

CHANCE OF BEING NEXT TO THE MOON: 25%


RUSSIA

The only other country which once challenged the United States in its quest to put a person on the face of the Moon, the Russians have faced financial doldrums since their heyday in space.

Valentina Tereshkova flew in space 20 years before the flight of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Image credit: Roscosmos

The Soviet Union placed the first dog, man, and woman in space. That nation was the first to reach the Moon, when Luna 2 crashed into the lunar surface in September 1959. Luna 3 provided the first pictures ever seen of the far side of the Moon. Later, Luna 9 made the first soft landing on the Moon, transmitting the first pictures from the lunar surface in 1966. Then, beset with technological problems, they lost the space race.

Still, they have not lost sight of the Moon. In March 2019, Russia initiated the Scientific International Research in Unique Terrestrial Station (SIRIUS) experiment, simulating a flight to the lunar surface. For 120 days, six volunteers will act out every detail of a long-term journey to our planetary companion.

“New equipment in the sphere of biochemical research will be tested along with new-generation biochemical analyzers, which will be subsequently delivered to a space station. Possibly, equipment will be tested that will be used for immunology research,” Project Scientific Coordinator Sergei Ponomaryov stated.

In 2012, a report from the Russian Space agency, Roscosmos, outlined plans to build a space station around the Moon, in an effort to place cosmonauts on the lunar surface sometime during the 2030’s. This journey would be undertaken utilizing Angara, a new rocket system capable of lifting six travelers into space.

“[T]wo rockets would blast off within three days from each other carrying the lunar module and its space tug. After linking up in the Earth orbit, the space tug would send the lander toward the Moon. Within a month, another pair of rockets would have to lift off, carrying the PTK NP spacecraft with a crew of four and their space tug. Cosmonauts would link up with their space tug in the Earth orbit and then make another rendezvous with the lunar lander in the orbit around the Moon. Two crew members would then transfer into the lander and make a sortie onto the lunar surface,” Russian Space Web reported in 2015.

Little has come (so far) of these plans, leaving Russia far behind in the quest to place human beings, once again, on the face of the Moon.

CHANCE OF BEING NEXT TO THE MOON: 5%


INDIA

Although they have yet to launch a crewed mission into space, India may be the wildcard in the drive to place humans on the Moon.

The world’s most-populous country, India has a vast wealth of human talent and a burgeoning space program.

The Chandrayaan-1 orbiter, launched to the Moon in 2008, helped discover water on the Moon. Chandrayaan-2 will be able to carry out extensive searches for water on the lunar surface. The space will peer inside craters at the poles of the Moon, where ice sits in eternal shadow. However, the launch of this spacecraft has been plagued with delays, setting back the Indian Moon program by several years.

A model of the Chandrayaan-2 rover undergoing microgravity testing. Cables leading upward from the rover are attached to large balloons, full of helium. Image credit: ISRO

“Developed entirely in India, this mission represents a number of technological firsts for the space agency: the heaviest interplanetary launch mass at about 3,890 kilograms (8,580 pounds), the first Indian soft landing, and the first-ever lunar south pole landing, to name a few,” The Planetary Society reports.

The Chandrayaan-2 mission has three components — an orbiter, lander, and rover.

“The mission will carry a six-wheeled Rover which will move around the landing site in semi-autonomous mode as decided by the ground commands. The instruments on the rover will observe the lunar surface and send back data, which will be useful for analysis of the lunar soil,” The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) explains.

India has made significant advances in their technology and missions, but has, to date, only launched small payloads. Bringing a human payload to the Moon would require the use or development of a whole new generation or spacecraft and delivery vehicles.

For now, their emphasis is on robotic missions, and the country has not yet revealed immediate plans to send humans to the Moon. However, you never know if goals could change in the coming years and decades.

CHANCE OF BEING NEXT ON THE MOON: 4%


SOMEONE ELSE:

It’s always possible another organization or nation could take everyone by surprise, placing human beings on the lunar surface before any others. After all, in 1963, France launched a rocket carrying a furry occupant into space, making Félicette the first (and so far, only) cat in space.

Japan or the European Union may have a sudden desire and capability to go to the Moon, or a rogue billionaire could decide they suddenly want to send their mother-in-law on a journey to our planetary companion. Although unlikely, there exists the possibility that now, or in the near-future, plans are hatching for a crewed mission to the Moon about which most people have not yet heard.

CHANCE OF BEING NEXT ON THE MOON: 1%


The Greatest Chance of All

Perhaps the greatest possibility for everyone, if we wish to feel the lunar surface under human feet once more, is to work together.

A dream team of SpaceX equipment lifting humans to space from Chinese, American, and Russian spaceports, while utilizing the vast experience, training and data records of NASA and Roscosmos, and the vast potential and enthusiasm of India, could place humans on the face of the Moon in the very near future. Also, talk to the French. There’s always room for a cat to make the journey.