This week, NASA selected four private companies to collect lunar resources to further its goals of landing the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024. In a distinctly effervescent teleconference, NASA Acting Associate Administrator Mike Gold announced Lunar Outpost’s successful bid to collect samples in 2023 from the lunar South Pole and transfer ownership of the lunar regolith to NASA for one dollar. Ispace Europe’s bid was for $5,000, and Masten Space Systems came in at $15,000. Ispace Japan’s winning bid was $5,000, with their lander scheduled to reach Lacus Somniorum on the Moon’s northeastern near side in 2022.
Given the incredible successes of the last few months, NASA’s euphoria is understandable. They certainly seem to be on a roll. OSIRIS-REx successfully touched down on asteroid Bennu last September, scooped a load of asteroid dust and debris, and is now being configured to return the samples to Earth in 2023. While OSIRIS-REx was stowing away its samples, the Mars 2020 mission with the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter was halfway to Mars and is scheduled to land on the red planet in February 2021. This last May, SpaceX launched the first crewed orbital spaceflight from the United States to the International Space Station (ISS) since 2011, and followed up last month by delivering an international crew of astronauts to the ISS. A follow-on SpaceX cargo mission launches today.
But as NASA contracts commercial providers to land on the moon over the next few years, China is already there. China’s National Space Administration launched their Chang’e 5 (Goddess of the Moon 5) lunar lander atop a Long March 5 rocket on November 23 on a no-nonsense lunar-sample return mission. Achieving lunar orbit, the lander/ascender separated from the orbiter/return vehicle and landed near the peak of Mons Rümker in the Oceanus Procellarum. If all goes well, the rover will collect 4.4 lbs. of moon rock (regolith) over a two-week period from as deep as 6 feet beneath the lunar surface, pack the samples into the ascent vehicle, blast off, link up with the orbiter, and return to Earth. The sample is scheduled to touch down in inner Mongolia by December 16 — in plenty of time for Christmas.
If all of NASA’s corporate partners succeed in landing on the moon over the next few years, and if they all actually collect a small amount of lunar regolith, NASA will own little piles of lunar material scattered about the lunar surface. NASA has no current plans on how they will recover the samples, but the price is right — a bargain at exactly $25,001 for all four missions.
China, on the other hand — if all goes well — will have been studying its four-plus pounds of new lunar material for years before NASA is able to even consider retrieval.
How did China get so far ahead?
President George W. Bush’s “Vison for Space” relied on the Constellation Program, providing for a Space Shuttle replacement, the completion of the International Space Station (ISS), a return to the moon no later than 2020, and crewed flight to the planet Mars.
In 2009, without consulting Congress, President Barack Obama scrubbed the Constellation Program, citing cost overruns, dooming the U.S Space Program to eight years of reliance on Russia’s Federal Space Agency to “shuttle” U.S. astronauts to and from the ISS.
While Obama was gutting NASA, China was finalizing its first prototype space station Tiangong-1 (Celestial Palace 1) as a crewed laboratory, and orbital testbed. Tiangong-2 was launched in September 2016 as a testbed for crewed and Shenzhou spacecraft and uncrewed Tianzhou-1 cargo vessels.
China launched the Chang’e 2 lunar orbiter in 2010 to map the surface of the Moon in greater detail, followed by Chang’e 3 lander and Yutu (Jade Rabbit) rover in 2013, which explored the northern region of Mare Ibrium. In 2018, Chang’e 4 and Yutu 4 rover landed on the dark side of the moon to explore the South Pole–Aitken Basin, where it continues to operate to this day.
On July 23, the week before NASA launched the Mars 2020 Perseverance/Ingenuity mission, China launched Tianwen-1 (Quest for Heavenly Truth), China’s first interplanetary mission. Tianwen-1 is expected to arrive in Mars orbit between February 11 and 24, 2021 — and set down in Utopia Planitia (south of NASA’s Viking 2 landing site and northeast of Elysium Planitia, the current location of NASA’s InSight Lander).
Does it matter? Have we caught up? Can we keep up?
Within his first year in offic,e President Donald J. Trump resurrected the National Space Council (defunct since 1993). He signed Space Policy Directive 1, calling for NASA to fast-track plans to return to the Moon and establish a lunar colony as a proving ground for deep space missions to Mars. He stood up the United States Space Force to fortify national assets and scan Earth’s orbit for threats. We are back on track with the core goals and timelines established in President Bush’s Constellation Project. But the next four years are critical.
Just as the United States has regained access to low-Earth orbit and the ISS, China is about to launch the core module of its new third-generation space station, Tianhe (Unification of Heaven). The 66-metric-ton space station could potentially expand to six modules, partnering with 17 countries for experimentation in low-Earth orbit.
It is a reality that has NASA chief Jim Bridenstine genuinely concerned. “A day is coming when the International Space Station comes to the end of its useful life,” Bridenstine said. “In order to be able to have the United States of America have a presence in low Earth orbit, we have to be prepared for what comes next.”
NASA emerged after eight years of Obama, struggling to make the false hope of private sector partners a reality. President Trump put money and muscle behind the project, and it remains NASA’s best and only hope for space travel. Bridenstine has requested $150 million for fiscal year 2021 to fund the commercialization of low-Earth orbit. “I don’t think it’s in the interest of the nation to build another International Space Station,” he said. “I do think it is in the interest of the nation to support commercial industry, where NASA is the customer.”
In announcing the companies selected to “collect lunar resources under the Artemis program,” Mike Gold spelled it out. “Apollos’s fatal flaw is that it ended,” Gold said. “Landing the first woman and the next man on the Moon will require a sustainable paradigm.”
But what if President-elect Joe Biden actually moves into the White House? The Biden–Harris administration has announced four priorities: COVID-19, economic recovery, “racial equity,” and climate change. The emphasis on climate change/Earth science will likely come at the expense of space exploration and the Artemis program. Just as President Obama killed the Constellation program, initiating an eight-year nuclear winter for NASA, a President Biden, unlikely to pursue a program so closely tied to President Trump, is almost certain to cancel Artemis.
China’s Space Program is not at the mercy of political lunacy, which turns on the spigots of research funds under conservative leadership only to turn them off again under radical liberal regimes. While we faltered, China doggedly stayed on track, becoming the only country that has landed on the moon in decades.
In a Space Race back to the Moon, the winner will own lunar resources, own crewed flight to Mars, and own the future of space travel. The loser won’t.
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