The New Space Race to the Moon Is Really the Go to Mars and Beyond

meIn 1961, US President John F. Kennedy said his nation would be the first to land on the moon. This ambitious goal would later be achieved when two NASA astronauts wobbly strides across the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, to the chagrin of the leaders of Russia’s space program.

More than 60 years later, a new space race to the moon has begun, albeit with much higher stakes and new players ready for the 238,855-mile journey. This time around, the race to the moon is much more than just placing a flag on its dusty surface. Getting to the Moon first could also mean summoning dibs on its limited resources, and controlling a permanent portal to take humans to Mars – and beyond.

Whether it’s NASA, China, Russia, or a consortium of private companies that ends up taking over the moon, the claim to the moon’s surface isn’t really about the moon anyway — it’s about who has easy 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 a space bug while watching the 1969 moon landing unfold on TV.

“When I was a kid, I saw it happen and wanted to be a part of it,” Rice told The Daily Beast. “That’s why I’m in this profession today.”

As Rice reflects on the current space race, he recognizes some key differences. “Things have really changed in a big way in terms of the technology and the players that are out there,” he said. “This is not the moon we thought of during the days of Apollo.” Scientists have learned a lot about the moon through more detailed analysis of lunar samples, as well as numerous missions that searched for exactly what might be on the moon’s surface still hidden deep in the earth.

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Although we’ve known for more than a decade that the moon may be teeming with reserves of water ice, only last year NASA announced that I found the best guide so far The water trapped in the icy pockets was more widespread across the moon’s surface than previously thought. The discovery fueled the idea of ​​building a permanent base on the Moon, which astronauts could use to reach Mars and other celestial destinations.

Concept art for a NASA-led astronaut base involving water ice exploration and mining.

NASA

Why is it so important? Water is a precious resource for space travelers — not just for astronauts to drink, but also to turn into rocket fuel for use in the explosion.

Remember your elementary school science here: Water is made of hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is known as the most efficient type of propellant, while oxygen can be combined with the fuel to cause combustion. Being able to smash all that water ice on the Moon means you can access each of its constituent elements – a massive source of rocket fuel. (And as an added bonus, you can use any excess oxygen as breathable air for astronauts.)

It is much better to find these resources on the Moon than to transport them from the Earth. Mobilizing resources into space comes at a huge price – it only costs about $10,000 to launch a one-pound payload into Earth’s orbit, According to NASA. It may be far less expensive to use what the moon has to offer to build a lunar stopover to cosmic destinations.

“I think the moon has been positioned as this midpoint, or the first step toward Mars,” Casey Dreyer, senior space policy advisor at The Planetary Society, told The Daily Beast. “It’s not a final destination.”

In other words, returning to the moon is not about the moon, at least not entirely. It’s a gateway to truly larger space ambitions. for this reason ArtemisNASA’s new lunar exploration program has always been touted not as merely a return to Apollo, but rather as the initial basis for a permanent presence on the Moon.

Acting NASA Administrator Steve Gorczyk, left, and Rick Gilbrech, Administrator of NASA’s Stennis Space Center, right, watch the base stage for the first flight of a NASA Space Launch System rocket undergo a second hot-fire test at the B-2 Test Stand on March 18.

NASA/Robert Markowitz via Getty

Martha Hess, director of human exploration and spaceflight for the Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit technical advisory organization on space missions, echoed those sentiments. “This time around, the Moon is a training ground, and Mars is the destination,” she told The Daily Beast.

The space race today is not only between competing nations and political ideologies. It also includes private companies trying to chase profits. “We are at a unique point in time where our economy is aligned with technology, allowing for private and commercial investment in space capabilities,” Hess said. “This investment takes the pressure off government agencies to maintain the industry.”

Private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are also looking beyond the moon. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has an obsessive vision of going to Mars and rehabilitating the planet to make it fit for human colonization. Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos is looking to be a dominant player in commercial space travel, transporting (possibly very wealthy) citizens to the Moon or beyond.

“Private companies have their own long-term goals that exist outside the national space program,” Dreyer said. “They will do what NASA tells them to do, they don’t care whether NASA is going to the Moon or Mars.”

Water and water everywhere

The thing that will determine the next lunar race is the fact that not every region on the moon is equal in value. “There are limited places to go, and it’s all about the location,” Rice said.

Just as the California gold rush in the 19th century was determined by where the gold was found, so the water rush to the Moon will be determined by where the water is stored. The United States is looking to build its lunar base at the moon’s south pole, where it’s believed to hold a wealth of water ice reserves.

Moreover, the South Pole is a wellspring for energy needs: it is exposed to more sunlight than anywhere else on the Moon, which can provide power for solar panels and power the base.

Li Xianhua, an academician with the China Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Geology, speaks during a press conference in Beijing on Oct. 19.

Noel Seles/AFP via Getty

and with There are no clear laws of space For the time being on ownership of things in space, lunar resources may go down to whoever calls the dibs first.

Who else wants to build a base on the south pole of the moon? For starters, there is China, which recently announced long-term plans for Building a base on the moon with Russia. Its farthest goal, of course, is Sending a manned mission to Mars by 2033.

China’s lunar exploration programme, or Project Chang’e, is relatively new to the scene but has already made great strides. in january. 2019, the country Chang’e-4 lunar probe It was the first spacecraft in history to land safely on the far side of the moon. In December 2020, the Chang’e-5 mission was launched Samples returned from the surface of the moon. Those new lunar rocks It is already paying off in new scientific discoveries. .

The Chinese Space Agency recently approved three more missions to the Moon, targeting – you guessed it – the Moon’s south pole. The nation’s space program hopes to have astronauts landing on the Moon by 2030. Later, we might see Chinese and American astronauts lounging on the Moon at the same time.

end line

However, China and Russia do not impose much competition on the United States as long as NASA does not delay its way back to the moon. “China is categorically working on capacity building,” Dreyer said. “But I would say they are at least a decade behind, if not more, than the capabilities of the United States.”

First on NASA’s agenda is Artemis I, an unmanned test flight to the Moon that aims to launch the new Space Launch System (the largest rocket system ever) and the crewed Orion capsule that will eventually bring astronauts back to the Moon. Initially launching in April, Artemis will simply orbit the Moon and return to Earth. It won’t be until Artemis III launches in 2025 (if you’re an optimist), we’ll finally see human boots reach the surface of the moon.

China has the advantage of being able to come up with a long-term plan and financing, which gives it the ability to shake off its 30-50-100 year vision. We don’t have that luxury.

Martha Hess

Hess believes, however, that China has one advantage over the United States that it can exploit to make rapid progress.

“China has the advantage of being able to come up with a long-term plan and financing, which gives it the ability to undo its 30-50-100 year vision,” Hess said. “We don’t have that luxury; our plans are good for a presidential term, our budgets are allocated annually until our programs start and stop and you starve.” Long-term exploration of the solar system is not something that has crystallized in US budgets for decades to come.

NASA estimates The Artemis program will cost $86 billion by 2025. The current US administration has provided Request for a financial budget of $24.8 billion for 2022 NASA to cover return to the moon.

During the first space race, the agency spent $28 billion on landing the first humans on the Moon, which equates to $280 billion when adjusted for inflation, According to the Planetary Society.

As the space program begins to shape each of those involved in the space race, policymakers realize they need to update the laws at hand to better control the new age of space exploration that is about to take off.

Regardless of who plants space shoes on the Moon next, there is an overall benefit to human exploration as a whole.

“There’s more to it because there’s such an inspiration to it that you can’t put a price tag on it,” Rice said. “It does something for you when you walk in there and look at the moon and now there are people out there doing something, it resonates.”

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