When the US ‘won’ the space race to the Moon, the events of that time effectively ended the political interest in space for a generation. Even though America never claimed the Moon as ‘American’, the Stars and Stripes were planted there, and no other nation has sent humans to step foot on the Moon. Maybe enough time has passed for the Apollo missions to simply seem to far away to mean the same thing, that sense of the Moon having been ‘done’ has evaporated; indeed, more and more people around the world, and even in America, question that NASA successfully landed on the Moon.
Let’s leave aside what an insult it is to great pioneers such as Buzz Aldrin, and focus on what’s next – a Russian mission to the Moon. With NASA’s recent statements about not ‘claiming’ places that they visit (with particular relevance to Mars), what about other nations? What if China goes to the Moon and claims it as Chinese? What if China gets to Mars first, will it reignite an international space-race again? It’s very unlikely, NASA has ruled out going back to the Moon, despite so much interest from others in going there, and indeed, players other than China and Russia can be counted in that number.
In 2010, President Obama announced the administration’s decision to cancel NASA’s plans to return to the moon in favor of the new and ambitious Asteroid Redirect Mission. A robotic mission will grab an asteroid in outer space, lug it over to the moon and place it into lunar orbit. Once it’s in orbit around the moon, NASA will send astronauts to explore it, but they will not get involved in a race ‘back’ to the Moon.
So what’s this new mission about? Well, it should have Europeans excited too.
“We have an ambition to have European astronauts on the moon,” Bérengère Houdou, head of the lunar-exploration group at ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Center,recently told BBC News. “There are currently discussion at international level going on for broad cooperation on how to go back to the moon.”
The Luna 25 mission was initially proposed in 1997 and has since suffered a number of delays, but it seems that with Europe’s aid the mission could finally get the jump-start it needs. Luna 25 is a mission to the Moon’s south pole, and getting there in 2029 it could be right in the time-frame that NASA ‘could’ be carrying out it’s Mars missions – surely further collaborations between space agencies beckons? When we’re talking about the future of humanity on other planetary bodies, can we think beyond the limits of national interests and national space agencies, or is it that very competition that we still need as humans in order to commit the resources to succeed…
So how do we feel about people who think that the moon landings were one big conspiracy? Is it funny? Do you agree with them? Are they entitled to their views, or is it a corrosive anti-intellectualism? Okay, so maybe I let my own views slip with that last question, but as fans of spaceflight, is this something we should engage with or simply or laugh it off? Apparently 20% of Americans now believe that the moon landings were a hoax.
For some people, Buzz reached new heights of being a hero when he punched an infamous moon-landing-denier in this now famous piece of video
Some feel that it’s simply a case of putting some facts on record, and everyone will agree, however that’s not how humans work. Our skeptical minds are essential tools, and obviously selected for survival over many thousands of years, but is there also an innate anti-intellectualism that may result from this, and it’s evident from these, and other groups for whom ever increasing amounts of evidence simply cause their views to be more deeply felt. Even though you saw it on the video clip, maybe Buzz DID NOT LAND that punch in the way it appears on first viewing…but I think we know the answer to that, and I’ll take my tongue out of my cheek now.
Part of the problem is that mankind has not been back to the moon since. People ask, if our technology has advanced, shouldn’t we have done so? In answer to that, some feel we need footage for the modern age, and that’s something that spaceflight enthusiasts look forward to.
Let’s assume that people can be rational, and I thought I’d share a couple of nice bits of evidence that are my favourite.
Here’s Amy Shira Teitel explaining about how we can see the effects of lower gravity in Apollo footage
Here’s a whole host of commentators and characters including Buzz and our own Roger Moore
Only 12 people have walked on the moon, and we haven’t been back since 1972. But a new NASA-commission study has found that we can now afford to set up a permanent base on the moon, by mining for lunar resources and partnering with private companies.
Returning humans to the moon could cost 90 percent less than expected, bringing estimated costs down from $100 billion to $10 billion. That’s something that NASA could afford on its current deep space human spaceflight budget.
“A factor of ten reduction in cost changes everything,” said Mark Hopkins, executive committee chair of the National Space Society, in a press release.
The study, released today, was conducted by the National Space Society and the Space Frontier Foundation—two non-profit organizations that advocate building human settlements beyond Earth—and it was reviewed by an independent team of former NASA executives, astronauts, and space policy experts.
“A factor of ten reduction in cost changes everything.”
To dramatically reduce costs, NASA would have to take advantage of private and international partnerships—perhaps one of which would be the European Space Agency, whose director recently announced that he wants to build a town on the moon. The new estimates also assume that Boeing and SpaceX, NASA’s commercial crew partners, will be involved and competing for contracts. SpaceX famously spent just $443 million developing its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew capsule, where NASA would have spent $4 billion. The authors of the new report are hoping that 89 percent discount will extend beyond low Earth orbit as well.
Similar to SpaceX’s goals of creating a reusable rocket, the plan also relies on the development of reusable spacecraft and lunar landers to reduce costs.
Plus, mining fuel from the lunar surface could make going back to the moon economically viable. Data from the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) suggest that water ice may be plentiful on the moon, especially near the poles. That’s important because water can be broken down into hydrogen propellant for rockets (and, conveniently, oxygen for humans to breathe).
Dive Bombing The Moon
In 2009, NASA’s LCROSS spacecraft shot a spent rocket stage at the Moon to analyze the plume of debris it kicked up. The results indicated that water may be common on the Moon.
The report envisions setting up a lunar industrial base that mines water from the lunar regolith, processes it into hydrogen, then sends the hydrogen into orbit around the moon so that spacecraft on their way to Mars (or elsewhere in the solar system) can stop by to get a fuel boost. Such an endeavor could shave off $10 billion per year in the cost of getting to the red planet. The report estimates that this industrial base would house four astronauts, and within 12 years of the initial landings, provide 200 megatons of propellant at a total cost of $40 billion.
How To Build A Lunar Mining Town
Here’s the specific proposal, as laid out in the report:
Robots determine how much hydrogen is in the lunar crust, and where it’s located. (Note: this step is crucial. If hydrogen is not plentiful and easy to mine from the lunar crust, then the plan to return to the moon is not viable.) One such robot has been proposed by NASA scientists. TheResource Prospector would deploy a rover that can search for hydrogen, drill into the lunar regolith, and heat samples to see what’s inside. If the mission gets funded, it’ll be the first mining expedition on another world.
Develop reusable spacecraft to get humans to and from the moon
Land humans at the equator, probably using SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which is still in development but estimated to cost $1700 per kilogram
Develop technologies to mine the lunar ice
Develop reusable lunar lander to carry equipment back and forth from lunar orbit to lunar surface
Send humans to the lunar poles
Select a site for mining
Use lunar lander to deliver Bigelow Aerospace inflatable space habitats to lunar surface for human occupation. The habitat modules could be located in a lava tube for protection against radiation.
Deliver a crew of four astronauts to live on the surface and assist in repair of the largely autonomous mining equipment.
Begin mining for hydrogen
Lunar lander delivers 200 metric tons of propellant per year to a depot at Lagrange point L2–a stationary spot in lunar orbit on the far side of the Moon
The plan calls for mining and transport technologies that do not currently exist, but they’re within the realm of possibility. “There are no show-stoppers,” said Hoyt Davidson from Near Earth LLC during yesterday’s press conference. “There are certainly more things that need to be studied, and issues that need to be addressed.”
A proposed Resource Prospector rover aims to be the first robot to mine resources on another world.
A Highway To Mars, And Beyond
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy famously said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Well, now that the Apollo program, Skylab, the International Space Station, and NASA’s other endeavors have paved the way, it’s not so hard anymore, says Tom Moser, who was the lead engineer and program manager for Apollo and the International Space Station. “Returning to the moon is easy, it’s reasonable and affordable, and could be the pathway to Mars… But there has to be a will do it.”
A 2014 Human Spaceflight Report found that the best way to send astronauts to Mars is to learn how to live on the moon first, but NASA went ahead with a cheaper path—the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which is largely irrelevant to the goal of traveling to and surviving on Mars. While there have been a few attempts to return to the moon after the Apollo program, those proposals had price tags ranging from $100 billion to a trillion dollars, says Charles Miller, the new study’s principle investigator and leader of the Alliance for Space Development.
Up until now, there hasn’t been widespread public support for going back to the moon, partly because it’s always seemed so expensive, says Miller. “We think the idea that this has to cost $100 billion should die a quick death.”
If mining for lunar hydrogen can be economically viable, it could pave the way for utilizing other valuable resources, such as helium-3, as well as making moon tourism more economical. “Now and forever, the most valuable thing in space is people,” says Gary Oleson from the Space Frontier Foundation’s board of directors.
The ideas in the report are just concepts and recommendations at this point, and NASA has no commitment to follow through on them as far as we can tell. But mining the moon certainly has the potential to restructure space travel. Rockets launching from Earth would no longer have to lift off carrying fuel and water for long journeys. Instead, they could pull over at the moon to top off their tanks. Leaving lunar orbit is a lot easier than leaving Earth, so these lunar way stations could potentially lower the cost of spaceflight dramatically, opening up a highway to Mars … and beyond.
“A permanent lunar settlement should be a building block for settlement of the rest of the solar system,” says Davidson.
Recently appointed ESA director, professor Johann-Dietrich Woerner is, perhaps unfashionably, interested in the moon.
In charge of a €4.4 billion annual budget, the former Chair of the German space agency is ultimately responsible for everything at Esa. Europe’s new observation, weather, communication and navigation satellites; astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS); missions to Mars, Mercury and Jupiter; and a sleepy lander on a duck-shaped comet all come under his remit.
Woerner vision for a future of space exploration that is both ambitious and audacious. There has been much debate about the virtue of returning to the moon, but not only is Woerner’s vision exciting and dramatic, there’s also something very exciting in how practical the logic is behind it in my view.
When everyone (spaceflightuk included!) is talking about going colonising our first new planet as a species, Mars, and the many challenges involved, we could be seen as forgetting that our closest planetary body is the moon; bigger than an ordinary satellite for a planet our size, really it’s more like binary planetary system. The moon has many of the same challenges that setting up a base on mars might have, and now scientists are sure that it also has the basic ingredients colonists would need, such as ice water at the poles.
So, the question is: are we going to prove that we can be an interplanetary species by first colonising our closest planetary body – the moon?
“We should look to the future beyond the International Space Station,” he tells me. “We should look for a smaller spacecraft in low-Earth orbit for microgravity research and I propose a Moon village on the far side of the Moon.”
Just the sort of daring vision that took Nasa from a standing start to the Moon in the 1960s, but today – possibly constrained by its political masters – the US space agency appears to be lacking ambition.
“A Moon village shouldn’t just mean some houses, a church and a town hall,” says Woerner. “This Moon village should mean partners from all over the world contributing to this community with robotic and astronaut missions and support communication satellites.”
There are good reasons, he says, for going back to the Moon for science as well as using it a stepping-stone to further human exploration of the Solar System.
“The far side of the Moon is very interesting because we could have telescopes looking deep into the Universe, we could do lunar science on the Moon and the international aspect is very special,” he explains. “The Americans are looking to go to Mars very soon – and I don’t see how we can do that – before going to Mars we should test what we could do on Mars on the Moon.”
For example, Woerner suggests, the technology being investigated by Nasa to construct a Mars base using a giant 3D printer would be better tried out on the Moon first. Learning to live on an alien world is going to be tough – but the challenge would be a lot easier, particularly in an emergency, if the extraterrestrial community is only four days away from Earth rather than six months.
Woerner envisages his Moon village as a multinational settlement involving astronauts, Russian cosmonauts and maybe even Chinese taikonauts. This would considerably extend the relatively limited number of nations involved in the ISS.
“We should have international cooperation, without any limitations, with any countries of the world,” says Woerner. “We have enough Earthly problems between different nations – space can bridge these Earthly problems and the Moon seems to be to be a good proposal.
Experience shows that there is no wall between exploration and practical applications
“Isolating a country is not the right way, a much better solution is to find ways to cooperate in space to strengthen ties between humans on Earth,” he adds, in what could be taken as a veiled criticism of America’s refusal to engage with the Chinese space programme. “If you think about an alien visiting the Earth and seeing what we are doing here, I’m not sure whether they would land.”
Moon in vogue?
Woerner has a robust response for those who criticise money spent on space exploration and astronomical research.
“Experience shows that there is no wall between exploration and practical applications,” he says. “Look at the greenhouse effect – everyone knows what it is and we use satellites to investigate it – but this was not discovered on Earth, it was discovered by an exploration mission to Venus.”
Right now the Moon village idea is just that; an idea, a proposal. No nation or agency has committed any money or mapped out the concept in any detail.
Woerner says he is voicing the idea of a Moon village to encourage discussion about the future of space research, exploration and the applications of space technology. “I will be very happy if someone else has a better idea,” he tells me.
Nevertheless, as one of the world’s most senior and powerful space figures, Woerner’s proposal will be taken seriously. Nasa is still vague about where it plans to fly its new Orion spacecraft – fitted incidentally with an Esa service module – and the Moon would seem to be a suitably inspirational destination.
“In our genes there is something beyond just practical applications,” Woerner says. “We like to discover, to pioneer – this is humankind and this is what brings us into the future.”
Some text taken from BBC interview, re-written for Spaceflightuik.com