Half a century after the triumphant overthrow of Apollo 11, the US space agency has long proclaimed that it not only intends to return to the Moon, but also to establish a permanent human colony there.
On the same day (February 13, 2019) that the Opportunity spacecraft ‘died’ on Mars after more than 14 years of operation, NASA revealed to reporters that it was ready to return to the moon, possibly by the end of the year.
NASA Science Mission Directorate Director Thomas Zurbuchen confirmed that the service’s intention was to put all the weight on exploring the Moon, while NASA Director Jim Bridenstine recognized the speed of the venture as a top priority.
This is not the first time NASA has made such emphatic declarations in President Trump’s years, after all. And it now has good company too, as a number of private companies, including Elon Musk’s first and foremost SpaceX, have their own plans for a big return to the Moon.
NASA is already working with nine commercial companies to accomplish this, including Lockheed Martin and Draper, whose space experience goes back as far as the Apollo era. The rest (Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and Orbit Beyond) are working feverishly to honor their contracts with NASA.
On the 50th anniversary of that historic trip by Baz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, NASA will also make public the final aspects of the plan. But why is he so hurried? Is that just why Trump is pushing her to return to the Moon?
As we recall, the US president called on NASA to return to the Moon at the end of 2017 and even signed a Space Policy Directive giving it all the funding it needs.
“This time, when we go to the Moon, we will go to stay. We will not leave flags and footprints to go home and not go back for the next 50 years, “Bridenstine said recently from NASA’s headquarters in Washington.
This time, of course, he said that before a man goes to the moon, an unmanned mission will first be sent. And now he’s revising the goals, talking about 2024. And definitely not a man before 2028! “We want to go fast,” Zurbuchen stressed, before even admitting that “we may not succeed.”
NASA’s latest lunar impact, before the big announcements, tells us that it intends to build a small space station (Gateway says it) that will orbit our natural satellite by 2026. By the end of 2019 intends to send scientific instruments and other technological devices to the Moon, he corrected.
But why is it so difficult to get back to the Moon? The last person (eleventh) to land on it was Gene Cernan in December 1972 with the mission of Apollo 17. And the last time we sent something to the Moon was in 1976, when the Soviets collected 170 grams of soil with Luna 24 .
And then silence …
One line of thought claims that the cost is disproportionately high compared to the potential benefit. Even Google’s notorious (Lunar X Prize) competition to ship private companies to the Moon with its $ 20 million prize ended quietly in 2018. The cost of shipping proved to be higher than the prize.
For the past 12 years (since September 2007), Google and X Prize have offered $ 20 million to the first private company to complete a lunar mission and send back to Earth “high resolution videos and images”. The deadline expired in 2012,after it took a number of extensions, and in January 2018 it landed definitive rolls, as it became clear that none of the five dominant companies would succeed by March 31, when the deadline expired.
Within that twelve years, only three vehicles have touched the lunar surface and all have been state-sponsored. Only China’s Chang’e 3 (launched in 2013) could roam the Moon. China recently made another success in January 2019 as it docked the Chang’e 4 on the invisible side of the Moon and then told us they would send people by the end of the 2030s.
The Indians send the Chandrayaan-2 to the moon in April 2019, but again the mission wasn’t manned. Despite the growing lunar interest, the results remain poor for a goal we have set as humanity since 1969, and it has proved to be very feasible. Why can’t we repeat it?
In a word: resources. When the US first cut the thread of engagement, NASA had literally taken the fastest route to the Moon. The goal was to defeat the Soviets, not to build a royal road that would pave the way for future missions.
“Instead of logical steps to build a sustainable model for continuous access and business on the Moon, it was more of a jump on the surface of the Moon,” says Blair DeWitt, general manager of Lunar Station Corporation (LSC), a promising space startup. based in Massachusetts, “this abnormal market structure removed the means to build the supply chain needed to support a continuous transfer of equipment, materials and people to the Moon.”
The chain must be made with calmness and prudence and not in the context of a new cold war contest, DeWitt tells us. Even so, and despite the fact that the costs of space adventure have dropped today and are even noticeable, returning to the Moon is not cheap.
In today’s values, the cost of the Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo space program would cost about $ 1.16 billion (NASA estimate). SpaceX’s powerful Falcon Heavy (now doing space missions) costs just $ 90 million. Very promising yes, but for the time being it is not able to carry the load of the savage Saturn V, making it prohibitive at the moment to carry larger loads.
Even Elon Musk (founder of SpaceX) who had promised to send tourists into orbit around the Moon in 2018, has recently described the fact that his Falcon Heavy would be capable of carrying astronauts, ‘impossible’.
The only rocket capable of being compared to the Saturn V in terms of thrust for the time being is NASA’s powerful rocket system, the billion-dollar programm called the Space Launch System (SLS). Which will not be ready for several years from today though.
Progress has been made all these years, but it has been slow. Even the action with the Lunar X Prize can boast of causing sparking interest, putting several startups in the competition game, but in the end no one met the deadlines and it soon seemed that the cash prize was not the point.
20 million is a relatively small amount for the sizes we are talking about. “The reality is that it takes a lot of money to get to the Moon,” says Google Lunar X Prize CEO Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, “when we founded it in 2007, we had the impression that contracts were lower than they actually were.”.
The teams were thinking smart. Some, such as Moon Express and Team Indus, eventually developed links and agreements with national space programs, America and India respectively. Some turned to private equity and others united, creating space groups.
Astrobotic, SpaceIL and Moon Express have all planned their own engagement in some years and everyone even has their own goals up there. Astrobotic is scheduled to launch in 2020 and already has 11 confirmed customers for the maiden voyage and a few hundred more on the waiting list.
Beyond the financial and technical challenges, however, one of the most persistent problems for space companies is public opinion. “If you go out on the road and say you build a company to carry cargoes to the Moon, people will look at you in a strange way. People in the world have to make a leap of faith and believe that you can build a business on the Moon, ”says John Thornton.
Astrobotic’s General Manager concludes: “All previous activities on the Moon were funded by superpowers. How would you feel if a private company landed there and made money? “
And surely Elon Musk’s ever-unexpected statements do not help the market believe in space adventure and want to bet its money: “Creating a rocket company must be one of the most stupid and difficult ways to make money” “Tweeted” in March 2018, “if it was for the money, I’d make another internet company.” Thornton argues that the best advisers to dispel the world’s mistrust are time, market fermentation and technological progress.
Brave steps have been taken in this direction in the last two years, as many startups have received millions in funding from traditional investors. Companies like Relativity Space, which is developing 3D printers for rocket printing, and LSC, which focuses on collecting research data from the Moon, change the landscape one feat at a time.
At the same time, it doesn’t make sense for state space entities (NASA in this case) to go back to the Moon just to return. Something that has been going on for half a century. They seek to return with great goals to their quiver and are more interested in long-term success than in short-term prestige goals.
The real purpose is another big leap for mankind: Mars.
Lunar missions look like a good rehearsal for the ultimate journey of man to the Red Planet: “We recognize the Moon as a resource, a step and a landmark,” says Thornton, “we have begun to regard it as a hub, not an end destination.”
Even Trump said this in December 2017: send astronauts to the Moon and eventually to Mars. And the funding he gave NASA for 2019 included a special Mars grant. It’s not just NASA playing the ball in the space arena, anymore.
Vladimir Putin has also declared his intention to travel to the Moon and Mars at the same time that China, India, Japan and the European Union (through the European Space Agency) all have their own plan for engagement.
The cube was dropped for the journey of man to the Moon and all the materials are here. And above all, the cooperation of states and individuals in achieving the goal. When will we go back to the Moon, no one can say for now. But one thing is certain: this time we will go to stay.