President Obama's 2011 budget cut NASA's Constellation program, his predecessor's plan to return humans to the Moon, en route to Mars. With the US government apparently out of the race to return to the Moon, who will now be next?
As Buzz Aldrin once so famously observed, "Second comes right after first." The Apollo program was a remarkable achievement - it was arguably the single greatest feat of engineering and human ingenuity in our history - but it proved a dead-end in terms of further human exploration of the solar system.
After nearly a half-century's worth of technological advancement at an exponential rate, a return of humans to the Moon figures to be more than just an end in and of itself. As such, the implications of which astronauts are the next to set foot on the Moon likely entails more than just which flag gets planted in the lunar soil.
There are a number of potential candidates for which country (or, more accurately, which geopolitical entity, but "country" is catchier) will be the next to put astronauts on the Moon. Let's take a look at the contenders, which include emerging global powers, veterans of the space race, and a dark horse or two.
China has to be considered the odds-on favorite to reach the Moon next. The country made headlines when it launched its first taikonaut, Yang Liwei, into space in 2003. The mission itself was fairly primitive, recalling NASA's Mercury missions of the early 1960s. Indeed, that comparison to the American space race may be very appropriate, as a 2009 article in the UK's The Guardian noted:
"The attitude to the space programme in China is a little bit like the attitude towards space exploration in the western world in the 1960s," says Kevin Fong, an expert in space medicine at University College London. "There's a deep fervour among their university kids for space technology. The main difference between China and America now is that China can just do something - they don't need to ask permission or go through a democratic process and get the budget approved."
Although China's proposed mission dates of 2025 and 2030 are not quite as ambitious as other countries, the sense among some experts is that China may have a much earlier date in mind. From the same article:
"It's all very dark out there and you're not really sure how much they're doing," says Fong. "They seem very serious about it and have mature thoughts about it, from the little you see in their presentations. They still have much to learn from the existing space community and don't want to be too overt about their ambitions at risk of looking like they've over-promised."
China successfully placed the probe Chang'e-1 in lunar orbit in 2007. Current plans also include a sample return mission in 2017 before the crewed attempt in the next decade. Barring a major change, the smart money in this space race has to be on China.
India's first satellite was put into orbit by the Soviets in 1975, and the country has been undertaking its own rocket launches since the early eighties. However, it was the launch of Chandrayaan-1 in October 2008 that marked the real giant leap for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The probe is the first Indian spacecraft to travel beyond Earth's orbit, and its Moon Impact Probe successfully landed on the Moon on November 14, 2008.
After the success of this mission, ISRO has set 2020 as its date for the first crewed mission to the Moon. It has a big budget to work with - about $800 million a year, with another $1.2 billion committed solely to human spaceflight over the next ten year - but the specific plans for a return to the Moon remain unclear. Without a better sense of the logistics of the mission, it's still difficult to gauge how realistic India's goal of 2020 actually is.
The current plan, as of August 2007, is for Russia to put cosmonauts on the Moon by 2025, with plans to establish a permanently crewed base on the lunar surface between 2027 and 2032. This is seen as a prelude for a mission to Mars in 2035.
The big problem for Russia is just how the country will be able to fund such a tremendously expensive endeavor. The economy did undergo massive growth in the previous decade under Vladimir Putin, but the global financial crisis has hit the country hard. Its fiscal situation remains precarious, and it may be difficult to consistently fund such ambitious programs. Russia's space tourism program has brought in about $30 million per ticket, but only eight plutocrats have thus far made the trip. That won't make much of a dent in the likely hundreds of billions of dollars needed for such a program.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Russian plan is the creation between 2016 and 2025 of a low orbital platform around the Earth. From here, Russia hopes to assemble spacecraft, potentially including those that will take the cosmonauts to the Moon and eventually Mars. They also hope to use the International Space Station as a laboratory until 2020, five years past the US's stated date of decommission.
The European Space Agency's Aurora Programme was an ambitious project established in 2001 with the lofty stated objectives of exploring the solar system and searching for life beyond Earth. The current timeline for Aurora is a crewed mission to the Moon in 2024.
Like with many cooperative projects undertaken by the European Union, budgetary considerations and clashing objectives of the member-states may prove to be huge complicating factors for Aurora. Even the ESA's official website still stresses that Europe has to decide how committed it is to space exploration, saying it can choose either to be a major player or junior partner in the global exploration of space. Although Europe likely has the technology and money to make Aurora a reality, it remains a very open question whether the public sentiment is there to see such a project through to its conclusion.
The Japanese space agency JAXA announced back in 2006 that it intends to establish a base on the Moon by 2030. To accomplish this feat, Japan hopes to land astronauts on the Moon by 2020. The base itself will begin construction around 2025, if all goes according to plan.
Although JAXA and its predecessor organizations have a long history dating back to 1970 of space exploration, they have not yet developed a crewed spacecraft. When the plan was first announced, spokesman Satoki Kurokawa addressed the public relations challenges of such an ambitious program:
"The feasibility of the plan is unclear at this point as we need to gain understanding by the government and the Japanese people on our plan, but technologically it would be possible in a few decades," Kurokawa said.
At the risk of microanalyzing that statement, it seems a bit strange to talk about the technology being possible in "a few decades" when 2020 is now just ten years away. Considering just how steep a gradient Japan would have to climb just to get astronauts in space, let alone on the Moon, this has to be considered a real long shot.
The most serious challenger to China is likely not a country at all, but instead the free market. Space Adventures, the company that has booked most of Russia's space tourists, already offers a circumnavigation of the Moon aboard the Soyuz craft for $100 million. (No billionaire has yet been quite eccentric enough to take them up on the offer.) Many entrepreneurs already predict such trips to the Moon will be commonplace by 2020, and Elon Musk, founder of Space Exploration Technologies, is willing to predict there will be commercial trips to Mars by the end of this decade.
Indeed, the Obama Administration's decision to cancel the Constellation program came hand in hand with a plan to put six billion dollars over the next five years towards further development of commercial spaceflight. Current commercial spaceflight developers estimate that this decision could create up to 5,000 jobs, allow for routine and relatively cheap orbital flights to begin by 2014, and open up the serious possibility of commercial trips to the Moon in the near term.
Other countries with some manner of plans for human spaceflight include Ecuador, Iran, Malaysia, North Korea, Turkey, and Romania. Although all of these programs remain very much in their infancy, it's worth remembering that NASA put astronauts on the Moon within just eleven years of its founding, using technology that by today's standards was unimaginably primitive. So it's probably best not to rule any country out. Speaking of which...
Yes, Constellation has been scrapped. Yes, the current administration seems to be pursuing a very different direction of space exploration that may end up being far more beneficial than just remaking the Apollo program. Yes, there is absolutely no reason to think the US is headed back to the Moon anytime soon. Even so, it's hard to completely discount what is still the only country to actually put humans on the Moon. Admittedly, this viewpoint is not backed up by any hard evidence or information, and my reasoning is pretty much the intellectual equivalent of chanting "USA! USA!" All of that may be true. But still, um...