By Sakke Teerikoski
Five years from now humans will have returned to the Moon, at least if you ask Donald Trump and Mike Pence. Earlier this year, on the 26th of March, Pence delivered a speech to the U.S. National Space Council, outlining a plan for NASA to accomplish a return to the Moon by 2024. According to Pence, “the first woman and the next man on the Moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil.” This speech accelerated NASA’s original plans to attempt a return by 2028 and has set NASA on a race against the clock.
NASA is currently talking about the Artemis Program, which according to NASA’s director Jim Bridenstine reflects the intention of NASA to land the first ever woman on the Moon. In ancient Greek mythology, Artemis was the sister of Apollo, which is the name of NASA’s earlier Moon program from the 1960s and 1970s. Not only does NASA plan to send people to the Moon, but also to place a small space station in orbit around it. This lunar Gateway is aimed for launch in 2022. The long-term goal is to be able to use the Gateway as an intermediate stop on space ventures further away to Mars and beyond in the future, hence the name.
Meanwhile, other countries seek to challenge the United States in what could become a new space race. China, with its Chang’e series of Moon landers, and India, with its recent Chandrayaan-2, are also competent players in the new space race to the Moon. It will only be a matter of time before these countries launch plans to send humans there. When they do, the U.S. will be even more committed to get back first – before everyone else. In his speech to the U.S. National Space Council, Mike Pence argued that the U.S. was already “locked in a new space race with China and Russia”. The U.S, China and the former Soviet Union are the only three countries that have ever successfully landed on the Moon’s surface. Pointing at recent advances by China, Pence argued that the Chinese have “revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s pre-eminent spacefaring nation.” As for Russia, the interest to challenge the U.S. in a space race rather comes in a more military type of context. In one of his election campaign speeches in 2018, Vladimir Putin talked about Russia’s advantage over the U.S. when it came to space applications for the military, which later led Donald Trump to launch his plans for a Space Force – a sixth branch of the Pentagon that would focus entirely on space applications.
China has indeed made a lot of progress recently when it comes to Moon missions. The nation landed their Chang’e-4 lunar lander, which also contained the lunar rover Yutu 2 (Jade Rabbit 2), on the “back side” of the Moon (i.e. the side that is never facing the Earth) in January this year. Chang’e-4 contained, among other experiments, a small garden of crops planted before launch where the Chinese had hoped to observe the growth of some of the crops after arrival on the Moon. Cotton seeds managed to sprout before the whole garden died in the freezing lunar night, becoming the first thing to ever grow on the Moon. The Chinese are now finalizing the next mission in the series, Chang’e-5, which will involve a sample-return campaign from the Moon to the Earth. The launch of Chang’e-5 is planned to take place in 2020.
This year, India and Israel also set to join the race to successfully land on the Moon. However, luck was not on their side. Due to technical problems with establishing contact to the spacecraft, the Israeli lander Beresheet crash-landed on the Moon in April. India’s Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft carried a lander, Vikram, which crash-landed near the lunar south pole in September. Despite this setback, India is definitely a player in space worth following in the future. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already set the goal for India to have its own astronaut program, with the first astronauts (or vyomanauts –“vyom” means “space” in Sanskrit) in space by 2022.
While the race intensifies as most big space nations start competing about who gets back to the Moon first, the best bet is still the United States, for now. Although 2024 is an ambitious goal, the Americans have done it before, and a re-election of Trump would surely motivate them to finish the task before the end of Trump’s second mandate. Another safe bet is that we Europeans sadly won’t be going to the Moon anytime soon. ESA and the EU don’t have any plans of the sort yet. While there are several interesting European missions into deep space being planned – both big and small – there is no political will in sight for such a massive mission as sending European astronauts to the Moon. We will remain spectators for a long time still. But the race has begun.
Illustration: Scott Huber
Sakke Teerikoski is a long-time member of UF and is currently the president of the UFS. When he’s not busy writing for Uttryck, he dwells in the realms of space satellites and, previously, EU affairs. Sakke is an engineer, currently based in Uppsala.