Return to the moon
Decades after that first small step, space thinkers are finally getting serious about our nearest neighbor
THIS WEEK, the European Space Agency made headlines with the first successful landing of a spacecraft on a comet, 317 million miles from Earth. It was an upbeat moment after two American crashes: the unmanned private rocket that exploded on its way to resupply the International Space Station, and the Virgin Galactic spaceplane that crashed in the Mojave Desert, killing a pilot and raising questions about whether individual businesses are up to the task of operating in space.
During this same period, there was one other piece of space news, one far less widely reported in the United States: On Nov. 1, China successfully returned a moon probe to Earth. That mission follows China’s landing of the Yutu moon rover late last year, and its announcement that it will conduct a sample-return mission to the moon in 2017.
With NASA and the Europeans focused on robot exploration of distant targets, a moon landing might not seem like a big deal: We’ve been there, and other countries are just catching up. But in recent years, interest in the moon has begun to percolate again, both in the United States and abroad—and it’s catalyzing a surprisingly diverse set of plans for how our nearby satellite will contribute to our space future.
China, India, and Japan have all completed lunar missions in the last decade, and have more in mind. Both China and Japan want to build unmanned bases in the early part of the next decade as a prelude to returning a human to the moon. In the United States, meanwhile, entrepreneurs are hatching plans for lunar commerce; one company even promises to ferry freight for paying customers to the moon as early as next year. Scientists are hatching more far-out ideas to mine hydrogen from the poles and build colonies deep in sky-lit lunar caves.
This rush of activity has been spurred in part by the Google Lunar X Prize, a $20 million award, expiring in 2015, for the first private team to land a working rover on the moon and prove it by sending back video. It is also driven by a certain understanding: If we really want to launch expeditions deeper into space, our first goal should be to travel safely to the moon—and maybe even figure out how to live there.
Entrepreneurial visions of opening the moon to commerce can seem fanciful, especially in light of the Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences crashes, which remind us how far we are from having a truly functional space economy. They also face an uncertain legal environment—in a sense, space belongs to everyone and to no one—whose boundaries will be tested as soon as missions start to succeed. Still, as these plans take shape, they’re a reminder that leaping blindly is sometimes a necessary step in opening any new frontier.
“All I can say is if lunar commerce is foolish,” said Columbia University astrophysicist Arlin Crotts in an e-mail, “there are a lot of industrious and dedicated fools out there!”
When the 1969 moon landing captivated people around the world, it seemed like the beginning of something amazing, a new relationship between Earth and its nearest satellite. Instead, it turned out to be essentially irreproducible—a feat fueled by Cold War competition and an astonishing outlay of national resources.
At its height, the Apollo program accounted for more than 4 percent of the federal budget. Today, with a mothballed shuttle and a downscaled space station, it can seem almost imaginary that humans actually walked on the moon and came back—and that we did it in the age of adding machines and rotary phones.
“In five years, we jumped into the middle of the 21st century,” says Roger Handberg, a political scientist who studies space policy at the University of Central Florida, speaking of the Apollo program. “No one thought that 40 years later we’d be in a situation where the International Space Station is the height of our ambition.”
Without a clear goal and a geopolitical rivalry to drive it, the space program had to compete with a lot of other national priorities. The dramatic moon shot became an outlier in the longer, slower story of building scientific achievements.
Now, as those achievements accumulate, the moon is coming back into the picture. For a variety of reasons, it’s pretty much guaranteed to play a central role in any meaningful excursions we take into space. It’s the nearest planetary body to our own—238,900 miles away, which the Apollo voyages covered in three days. It has low gravity, which makes it relatively easy to get onto and off of the lunar surface, and it has no atmosphere, which allows telescopes a clearer view into deep space.
The moon itself also still holds some scientific mysteries. A 2007 report on the future of lunar exploration from the National Academies called the moon a place of “profound scientific value,” pointing out that it’s a unique place to study how planets formed, including ours. The surface of the moon is incredibly stable—no tectonic plates, no active volcanoes, no wind, no rain—which means that the loose rock, or regolith, on the moon’s surface looks the way the surface of the earth might have looked billions of years ago.
NASA still launches regular orbital missions to the moon, but its focus is on more distant points. (In a 2010 speech, President Obama brushed off the moon, saying, “We’ve been there before.”) For emerging space powers, though, the moon is still the trophy destination that it was for the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. In 2008 an Indian probe relayed the best evidence yet that there’s water on the moon, locked in ice deep in craters at the lunar poles. China landed a rover on the surface of the moon in December 2013, though it soon malfunctioned. Despite that setback, China plans a sample-return mission in 2017, which would be the first since a Soviet capsule brought back 6 ounces of lunar soil in 1976.
The moon has also drawn the attention of space-minded entrepreneurs. One of the most obvious opportunities is to deliver scientific instruments for government agencies and universities. This is an attractive, ready clientele in theory, explains Paul Spudis, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, though there’s a hitch: “The basic problem with that as a market,” he says, “is scientists never have money of their own.”
One company aspiring to the delivery role is Astrobotic, a startup of young Carnegie Mellon engineers based in Pittsburgh, which is currently positioning itself to be “FedEx to the moon,” says John Thornton, the company’s CEO. Astrobotic plans to fly with SpaceX, the commercial space firm founded by Elon Musk, to use a Falcon 9 for an inaugural delivery trip in 2015, just in time to claim the Google Lunar X Prize. Thornton says most of the technology is in place for the mission, and that the biggest remaining hurdle is figuring out how to engineer a soft, automated moon landing.
Plans like these are the low-hanging fruit of the lunar economy, the easiest ideas to imagine and execute. Longer-scale thinkers are envisioning ways that the moon will play a larger role in human affairs—and that, says Crotts, is where “serious resource exploitation” comes in.
If this triggers fears of a mined-out moon, be reassured: “Apollo went there and found nothing we wanted. Had we found anything we really wanted, we would have gone back and there would have been a new gold rush,” says Roger Launius, the former chief historian of NASA and now a curator at the National Air and Space Museum.
There is one possible exception: helium-3, an isotope used in nuclear fusion research. It is rare on Earth but thought to be abundant on the surface of the moon, which could make the moon an important energy source if we ever figure out how to harness fusion energy. More immediately intriguing is the billion tons of water ice the scientific community increasingly believes is stored at the poles. If it’s there, that opens the possibility of sustained lunar settlement—the water could be consumed as a liquid, or split into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for fuel.
The presence of water could also open a potentially ripe market providing services to the multibillion dollar geosynchronous satellite industry. “We lose billions of dollars a year of geosynchronous satellites because they drift out of orbit,” says Crotts. In a new book, “The New Moon: Water, Exploration, and Future Habitation,” he outlines plans for what he calls a “cislunar tug”: a space tugboat of sorts that would commute between the moon and orbiting satellites, resupplying them with propellant, derived from the hydrogen in water, and nudging them back into the correct orbital position.
In the long term, the truly irreplaceable value of the moon may lie elsewhere, as a staging area for expeditions deeper into space. The most expensive and dangerous part of space travel is lifting cargo out of and back into the Earth’s atmosphere, and some people imagine cutting out those steps by establishing a permanent base on the moon. In this scenario, we’d build lunar colonies deep in natural caves in order to escape the micrometeorites and toxic doses of solar radiation that bombard the moon, all the while preparing for trips to more distant points.
That may sound far-fetched, or at least way beyond our capabilities and priorities now. But in a certain sense, it casts the moon in a familiar role. “The moon is your gas station,” Crotts says. Even in space, a gas station may be something that everyone needs.
The list of technological hurdles is long, and there’s also a legal one, at least where commerce is concerned. The moon falls under the purview of the Outer Space Treaty, which the United States signed in 1967, and which prohibits countries from claiming any territory on the moon—or anywhere else in space—as their own.
“It is totally unclear whether a private sector entity can extract resources from the moon and gain title or property rights to it,” says Joanne Gabrynowicz, an expert on space law and currently a visiting professor at Beijing Institute of Technology School of Law. She adds that a later document, the 1979 Moon Treaty, which the United States has not signed, anticipates mining on the moon, but leaves open the question of how property rights would be determined.
There are lots of reasons the moon may never realize its potential to mint the world’s first trillionaires, as some space enthusiasts have predicted. But to the most dedicated space entrepreneurs, the economic and legal arguments reflect short-sighted thinking. They point out that when European explorers set sail in the 15th and 16th centuries, they assumed they’d find a fortune in gold waiting for them on the other side of the Atlantic. The real prizes ended up being very different—and slow to materialize.
“When we settled the New World, we didn’t bring a whole lot back to Europe [at first],” Thornton says. “You have to create infrastructure to enable that kind of transfer of goods.” He believes that in the case of the moon, we’ll figure out how to do that eventually.
To others, the correct analogy for moon exploration isn’t the bountiful New World, but another remote location on Earth—one that matters for researchers, but has never become a place people want to spend time. “The moon is going to be done in the context of prestige science,” Launius says, “and it will look a lot like Antarctica.”
Roger Handberg is as clear-eyed as anyone about the reasons why the moon may never become more than an object of wonder, but he also understands why we can’t turn away from it completely. That challenge, in the end, may finally be what lures us back.
“The moon is there; you walk out most nights of the year, you see it,” he says. “There’s a kind of sense of unfulfillment that we went there, and nobody thought it would be this long between that flight and now.”
Kevin Hartnett writes the Brainiac blog for Ideas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of incorrect information provided by Astrobotic, an earlier version of this story said the company had a signed contract with SpaceX.