We knew Russia had ambitious plans for interplanetary exploration, and on Tuesday, an announcement from the head of the country's space agency really drove that point home. Russia wants to go to the Moon; and they want to stay there.
"We're not talking about repeating what mankind achieved 40 years ago," said Vladimir Popovkin, head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, at Tuesday's Global Space Exploration Conference in Washington, D.C. "We're talking about establishing permanent bases."
This isn't the first time we've heard Russia talk ambitious plans for the Moon; back in March, leaked documents outlined a number of the country's deep space mission objectives (including sending probes to Jupiter and Venus, and conducting "a demonstrative manned circumlunar test flight, with the subsequent landing of cosmonauts on [the Moon's] surface"); but it's the context of Tuesday's announcement that makes it especially noteworthy.
For one thing, Russia's not alone in their lunar ambitions; Japan has made its interests in Moon exploration clear, as well. Nor is Russia alone in its willingness to work with other countries in achieving its goals; the benefits of international collaboration, were, after all, a central theme at Tuesday's space summit. Which calls attention to something important about Tuesday's multinational conference: America's conspicuous absence. Writes Nature News Blog's Eric Hand:
Interestingly, the leader of the space agency whose headquarters is just a few blocks away [from the conference] was not on the stage. That's because NASA administrator Charles Bolden was in Florida, watching the attempt by SpaceX to send its Dragon capsule to the International Space Station.
But perhaps it was somewhat appropriate for NASA to be absent. Increasingly, the agency has had a hard time consummating its joint ventures, and Europe in particular has had to turn elsewhere for partners. [Hand's last point is in reference to NASA backing out of ExoMars - a joint Martian mission program between NASA and the European Space Agency — due to budgetary constraints.]
It will be interesting to see how things unfold in the next five, ten, twenty years. America, for the most part, has turned its attention toward asteroids and Mars, not the Moon, so it's unclear how Russia and international collaborators pushing for its colonization might impact the U.S.'s own plans for space. If nothing else, it should be exciting to see as many areas of space exploration being pursued by as many countries as possible. [Nature | Aviation Week | Global Space Exploration Conference]