In 1961, US President John F. Kennedy declared that his country would be the first to land a man on the moon. This lofty goal would later be achieved when two NASA astronauts tottered across the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, much to the dismay of Russian space program officials.
Over 60 years later, a new space race to the moon has begun, but with much higher stakes and new players ready to make the 238,855 mile journey. This time, the race for the moon is not just about planting a flag on its dusty surface. Getting to the Moon first could also mean calling on its limited resources and controlling a permanent gateway to take humans to Mars and beyond.
Whether it’s NASA, China, Russia, or a consortium of private companies that end up dominating the moon, claiming the lunar surface isn’t really about the moon anyway, it’s is about who has easier access to the rest of the solar system.
Everyone has an agenda
James Rice, a senior scientist at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, recalls growing up with the Apollo program and being bitten by the space bug as he watched the 1969 moon landing unfold on television.
“As a child, I saw this happen and wanted to be a part of it,” Rice told The Daily Beast. “That’s basically why I’m in this career today.”
As Rice reflected on the current space race, he recognized some key differences. “Things have really changed dramatically in terms of technology and players,” he said. “This is not the moon we thought of at the time of Apollo.” Scientists have learned much more about the moon through more detailed analysis of lunar samples, as well as several missions that have probed exactly what might be on the moon’s surface and hidden deep underground.
Although we’ve known for more than a decade that the moon is likely teeming with water ice reserves, NASA announced last year that he had found the best evidence yet that water trapped in ice pockets was much more prevalent on the lunar surface than previously believed. This discovery fueled the idea of building a permanent base on the Moon, which astronauts could then use to reach Mars and other celestial destinations.
Why is this a big deal? Water is a valuable resource for space travelers, not only for astronauts to drink, but also to turn into rocket fuel to use for blast off.
Remember your school science here: water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is known to be the most efficient rocket propellant, while oxygen can be combined with fuel to create combustion. The ability to break through all that water ice on the moon means you have access to its two building blocks – a huge supply of rocket fuel. (And as a bonus, you can use any excess oxygen as breathing air for the astronauts.)
Finding these resources on the moon is much better than transporting them from Earth. Transporting resources into space comes at a high price: it costs around $10,000 just to launch a payload weighing just one pound into Earth orbit, according to NASA. It could be much cheaper to use what the moon has to offer to build a lunar pit stop to cosmic destinations.
“I think the moon was placed as this midpoint, or first step to Mars,” Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser at the Planetary Society, told The Daily Beast. “It’s not a final destination.”
In other words, going back to the moon isn’t really about the moon, at least not entirely. It is a gateway to truly greater space ambitions. That’s why Artemis, NASA’s new lunar exploration program, has always been touted not just as a redux of Apollo, but rather as the initial basis for a permanent presence on the Moon.
Martha Hess, director of human exploration and spaceflight at the Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit organization for technical advice on space missions, echoed those sentiments. “This time the moon is the training ground and Mars is the destination,” she told The Daily Beast.
Nor is today’s space race simply between competing nations and political ideologies. It also involves private companies trying to seek profits. “We are at a unique time where our economy and technology are aligned, allowing private and commercial investment in space capabilities,” Hess said. “This investment relieves pressure on government agencies to support the industry.”
Private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are also looking beyond the moon. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has an obsessive vision to go to Mars and terraform the planet to make it suitable for human colonization. Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos seeks to be a dominant player in commercial space travel, ferrying (probably very wealthy) citizens to the moon or beyond.
“Private companies have their own long-term goals that exist outside of the national space program,” Dreier said. “They will do whatever NASA asks them to do, they don’t care if NASA goes to the Moon or Mars.”
A struggle for resources
Something that will define the lunar race to come is the fact that not all regions of the moon have the same value. “There are few places to go, and it all depends on location,” Rice said.
Just as the California Gold Rush in the 19th century was defined by where the gold was found, the water rush to the moon will also be defined by where the water is stored. . The United States is looking to build its lunar base at the moon’s south pole, where there are believed to be many water ice reserves.
In addition, the south pole is a source for meeting energy needs: it is exposed to more sunlight than anywhere else on the moon, which would power the solar panels and power the base.
And with no clear spatial laws currently in place on the ownership of objects in space, lunar resources could very well depend on who calls dibs first.
Who else wants to build a base at the south pole of the moon? For starters, there’s China, which recently announced long-term plans to build a base on the moon with Russia. Its most distant goal, of course, is to send a crewed mission to Mars by 2033.
China’s lunar exploration program, or Chang’e project, is relatively new to the scene but has already made great strides. In January 2019, the country’s Chang’e-4 lunar probe was the first spacecraft in history to land safely on the far side of the moon. In December 2020, the Chang’e-5 mission returned samples from the lunar surface. These new moon rocks are already bearing fruit in new scientific revelations. .
China’s space agency recently approved three more missions to the moon, targeting – you guessed it – the lunar south pole. The country’s space program hopes to land astronauts on the moon by 2030. Eventually, we may see Chinese and American astronauts hanging out on the moon at the same time.
The finish line
Nevertheless, China and Russia don’t compete much with the United States until NASA lingers on the way back to the moon. “China is absolutely working on building up its capabilities,” Dreier said. “But I would say they’re at least a decade behind, if not more, the American capability.”
First on NASA’s agenda is Artemis I, an uncrewed test flight to the moon that is intended to launch the all-new Space Launch System (the largest rocket system ever built) and capsule. Orion crew that will eventually return astronauts to the moon. Tentatively launching in April, Artemis I will simply orbit the moon and return to Earth. It’s only after Artemis III, which is slated for launch in 2025 (if you’re optimistic), that we’ll finally see human boots arrive on the lunar surface.
“China has the advantage of being able to establish a long-term plan and financing, which allows it to destroy its 30-50-100 year vision. We don’t have that luxury.”
— Martha Hess
Hess, however, thinks China has an advantage over the United States that it could exploit to make rapid progress.
“China has the advantage of being able to establish a long-term plan and funding, which allows them to smash their 30-50-100 year vision,” Hess said. “We don’t have that luxury; our plans are good for a presidential term, and our budgets are allocated each year so that our programs start, stop and starve. Long-term exploration of the solar system is not really something that crystallizes in US budgets for decades to come.
NASA estimates that the Artemis program will cost $86 billion by 2025. The current US administration has made a Budget request of $24.8 billion for fiscal year 2022 for NASA to cover the return to the moon.
During the first space race, the agency spent $28 billion to land the first humans on the moon, or about $280 billion after adjusting for inflation. according to planetary society.
As the space program of each of the participants in the space race begins to take shape, policymakers realize that they must update current laws to better govern the new era of space exploration that is about to launch.
Regardless of who plants space boots on the moon next, human exploration as a whole has one overriding advantage.
“There’s more to it because there’s an inspiration that you can’t put a price tag on,” Rice said. “It does something to you when you walk out there and look at the moon and now there are people out there doing something, that just resonates.”