The New Race for The Moon
After a pause of nearly 50 years, the dream of humans living on the Moon is on the cusp of finally becoming a reality, with firm plans for a permanent human presence being developed by the United States, Russia and China.
Back in 1969 when humans first walked on the Moon, it was widely believed that a permanent human presence there was the next logical step after the Apollo program. However, Eugene Cernan, was to be the last man to walk on the lunar surface in 1972. By then, the huge costs of manned space exploration and the feeling that the US had already won the Cold War space race had already combined to put an end to mankind’s dream of colonizing our nearest neighbour.
Now, after half a century languishing in low-earth orbit, with the price of space travel finally starting to fall, that dream is back on the rise. Rival powers are once again competing to be the first: this time to establish a lasting presence on those ancient, dusty and cratered lunar plains.
It is a long overdue return to complete this glaring piece of unfinished business in the history of human exploration and adventure.
NASA is leading the charge by pursuing a strategy of international cooperation with its highly developed Artemis program. By working with other countries, it aims to share the costs, risks and benefits of space, an approach developed in low Earth orbit on board the International Space Station.
However, in a reflection of the political and economic tensions back on Earth, major space players Russia and China are busy formulating plans for their own rival moonbase outside this Western-led grouping of nations. This adds a powerful element of competition and urgency to the enterprise of putting human beings on the Moon once again.
So how are the designs of the major players in the new race for the Moon shaping up and how likely are they to succeed?
The Artemis program is NASA’s ambitious plan to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon by the end of the decade. This will become a steppingstone for the agency’s next giant leap to the planet Mars.
Artemis will comprise a powerful launch system, a newly developed crewed spacecraft, a somewhat controversial space station in lunar orbit and a vehicle for descent to the lunar surface. Plans are already advanced with some of the components nearing completion but questions remain over the future funding of the project.
Space Launch System
The workhorse vehicle for the Artemis endeavour will be the powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which will launch the astronauts in the Orion spacecraft to the Moon via the Gateway Lunar Outpost.
SLS is derived from the Space Shuttle and is intended to replace the ill-fated reusable space-plane as NASA’s flagship vehicle. It is claimed it is the most powerful rocket that NASA has ever built, capable of launching payloads of up to 45 tons beyond low Earth orbit. It is intended that this rocket will launch the Artemis payloads intended for the Moon and then serve as the launch vehicle for future crewed missions to Mars.
The projected development costs of $18bn are considered too high by critics of the program, many of whom are enthusiastic proponents of the human colonisation of space. They argue that contracting construction of a launch system to the private sector could have brought this sum down to as low as $5bn. This would have allowed NASA to divert much needed funds to other exploration projects.
The uncrewed maiden flight of the SLS (Artemis 1) is scheduled for November 2021. This trip around the Moon will last about a month, with the first crewed mission (Artemis 2) slated to follow a similar trajectory in August 2023.
Then, if all goes to plan, in October 2024 Artemis 3 will become the first mission to send human beings to the lunar surface since Apollo 17.
These early flights of the SLS will be the first chance to test the Orion capsule: the spacecraft chosen for the Artemis Program.
Its basic configuration is similar to the Apollo Command and Service Module that first took astronauts to the Moon but it is larger and technologically far more advanced.
It can support an active crew for 21 days and remain in space for an additional six months while the crew are conducting mission operations elsewhere, for example on the surface of the Moon. The spacecraft’s life support, propulsion, thermal protection, and avionics systems are designed to be upgradable as new technologies become available, extending the useful life of the spacecraft.
The craft consists of two components: a reusable Crew Module, built by Lockheed Martin to house the astronauts and the European Service Module (ESM), which provides power and propulsion. The ESM is built for the European Space Agency (ESA) by Airbus Defence and Space and will be discarded at the end of each mission, making Orion a partially reusable craft.
Orion will carry up to six astronauts into space and protect them during atmospheric re-entry during their return to Earth after missions in deep space.
it will pioneer a new re-entry technique for a human crew: skip entry, which will allow it to select its landing spot more accurately in the Pacific Ocean and splashdown closer to the United States coastline and the waiting recovery crews. This will mean a faster and more efficient recovery at the end of the mission.
During skip entry, named after the technique of skipping rocks across the surface of a pond, the capsule will decelerate by skimming the upper part of Earth’s atmosphere. This will give it a kick to lift it back into space after which it will re-enter to descend using parachutes.
The Gateway Lunar Outpost will be a space station in orbit around the Moon, built and serviced by an international collaboration of eight countries in a similar fashion to the currently operational International Space Station (ISS).
The basic components of Gateway will be assembled on Earth and then launched by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s private sector space launch company, using its Falcon Heavy rocket no earlier than 2024. Once in lunar orbit after a nine-to-ten-month flight, Gateway, which will initially be considerably smaller than the ISS, can then be expanded with additional modules.
Like the ISS, Gateway will be a destination in itself for some expeditions and science investigations, as well as a space port for Artemis landing craft, which will then descend to the lunar surface. It will also be a jumping off point for spacecraft embarking on missions beyond the Moon, for example to Mars or nearby asteroids.
Gateway has received some criticism for making the already challenging design of the Earth-Moon commute unnecessarily complex and expensive. A direct, Apollo-style system with no intermediate stop-off at a space station would indeed be much faster and cheaper. However, NASA’s long-term plan is to use Artemis as a stepping stone towards a much more comprehensive space exploration infrastructure.
The Agency claims that Gateway will provide the foundations for a sustainable, re-usable, developing architecture. It could for example, store propellant harvested from future Moon missions where it could be used to fuel spacecraft before they depart for other deep space destinations.
NASA is wary of being accused of simply creating another Apollo: a race to get to the Moon or Mars that terminates with a motionless flag on a celestial body, and no lasting legacy of further exploration of the Solar System. It therefore aims to use Gateway as proof of concept for a flexible mission architecture. It hopes that this will serve as the basis for a variety of deep space activities including interplanetary transportation and resource exploitation such as asteroid mining.
The Human Landing System (HLS) is a craft designed to take astronauts down to the lunar surface from the Gateway. Once on the Moon, initially, they will live in these small craft for up to a week as they explore and the Moon. NASA has selected SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics to develop these landers.
If successful, Artemis astronauts will have a choice of three very different vehicles:
Blue Origin’s Integrated Lander Vehicle, Blue Moon will be a three-stage lander. It will be launched on the Blue Origin partially reusable New Glenn Rocket System or the ULA Vulcan-Centaur launch system, both of which are still in development.
The Dynetics Human Landing System is a single structure providing both descent to and lift-off from the lunar surface. It too is proposed to launch on the ULA Vulcan-Centaur launch system.
SpaceX is in the late stages of developing the Starship – a fully integrated reusable lander based on its own SpaceX Super Heavy rocket.
Will NASA’s Plans Succeed?
So just what are the chances of the US Government stumping up the funds to pay for the completion of the Artemis Program? With the SLS slated to launch as soon as November 2021, the Biden administration has given an indication of support in principle for Artemis. However, though the current spending bill fully funds the Orion capsule, it allocates about a quarter of the $3.3 bn NASA has requested to develop the HLS.
Against a backdrop of strong support for the Program among both Democrat and Republican lawmakers, it seems that the current US administration is prepared to back a human return to the Moon but is not necessarily committed to the 2024 goal committed to during the Trump presidency.
Russia and China
It looks certain that neither Russia nor China will engage with the Artemis program. Russian space agency Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin has said that Russia’s will likely not participate in Artemis, and since 2011, NASA has been banned from cooperating with China without special congressional approval.
Instead, the two countries are planning to build a research station of their own on the Moon. The announcement was made online on March 9, 2021, jointly by the China National Space Administration and Roscosmos.
It will be called the International Lunar Research Station, provisionally targeted for completion in 2031.
Currently existing only as a memorandum of understanding between the two space agencies, it’s not clear whether the station will be on the lunar surface or in orbit. However, it is intended to represent a long-term human presence. Its brief will be to conduct scientific research, exploration and observation and research the utilisation of moon-based resources.
Just as with the US-led Artemis Program, there is a declaration of intent to make the project open to international partners who wish to collaborate.
Despite the lack of completed mission architecture, Russia has a long history of successful and practical space enterprise, and China’s ambitious lunar exploration program has already passed several impressive milestones. Combining their resources, these two countries could emerge as a spacefaring titan to rival the United States. This means that their intent to put humans permanently on the Moon has to be taken seriously by both observers and their competitors alike.
The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program
As of 2019, China was conducting preliminary studies for landing humans on the Moon in the 2030s. The final infrastructure for this is well behind the US-led Artemis Program, but with the very fast and impressive progress made so far by the Chang’e Project combined with the national determination to establish itself as a superpower both on Earth and in space, China’s plans for a manned facility on the Moon represent a serious challenge to spur on the successful completion of Artemis as well as a serious proposition of a Moon base in its own right
The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) is also known as the Chang’e Project after the Chinese Moon goddess, Chang’e (pronounced: Chang-uh). It is an ambitious program that aims to exploit resources in situ on the lunar surface. These include known deposits of metals such as titanium, and potentially significant reserves of helium-3, an element that could become an important component of a future commercial fusion industry back here on Earth.
In 2019, the head of CLEP officially announced their goal of landing a crew on the Moon’s south pole within the next ten years. This is a goal that could well be within reach of China’s rapidly expanding scientific and economic power.
Chang’e and the Lunar Research Station
In Phase I which comprised orbital missions, China successfully launched two lunar orbiters, Chang’e 1 (2007) and Chang’e 2 (2010), which have created detailed 3-D maps of the surface and identified the locations of potentially valuable resources. Chang’e 2 also flew further into deep space to visit the Earth–Sun L2 Lagrange point and complete a flyby of an asteroid.
In Phase II, designed to deploy lunar rovers, Chang’e 3 (2013) landed a rover named Yutu on the Moon, which explored 3 square km during a 3-month mission. It also conducted a series of astronomical observations from the lunar surface. Then Chang’e 4 (2018) landed in the South Pole-Aitken Basin in 2019 and deployed the Yutu-2 rover. It was a remarkable achievement: the first time a soft landing has ever been achieved on the far side of the Moon.
Phase III focussed on sample return. Chang’e 5 landed on the Moon on 1 December 2020, and returned to earth with 2 kg of lunar soil 14 days later. With the success of this mission, China became the third country to return samples from the Moon after the United States and the Soviet Union.
Robotic Research Station
Phase IV of the project is the development of a robotic lunar research station near the Moon’s south pole. Chang’e 6, proposed to launch in 2023/4, will investigate the landing site, and return samples to Earth.
Chang’e 7, expected to launch in 2023, will explore the south pole for resources and will include an orbiter, a lander, a rover, and a flying probe.
Chang’e 8 is anticipated in 2027, It will test technology the required to construct a human-crewed lunar science station by testing the viability of in-situ exploitation of lunar resources. It is proposed to include a lander, a rover, and a flying detector. It will also incorporate a 3D-printer to test-build a structure using lunar materials. Additionally, it will contain a small, sealed ecosystem experiment.
The Russian Plan
Russia already has a fleet of heavy lift rockets, though these are of significantly smaller capacity than NASA’s SLS or SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. It does have plans at least on paper for two lunar stations: one to be put in Orbit around the Moon, the other on the surface, just as the US are planning to do with Artemis. Russia’s economic power is much reduced since the fall of the USSR, but it is determined to remain a space superpower and it could be that a partnership with China will provide the financial muscle required to maintain its place at the top table of lunar exploration.