Check back in a decade, though, and the scene may be radically different. In last week’s inaugural meeting of the revived National Space Council, Vice President Mike Pence vowed that “we will return NASA astronauts to the moon,” spurred by scientific, commercial, and national security interests. His comments formalized the moon-first agenda laid out by U.S. Representative Jim Bridenstine, the new nominee for NASA administrator.
“Our very way of life now depends on space,” he declared in a manifesto published last fall. “America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation, and the moon is a path to being so.”
In Bridenstine’s vision, the moon will soon host a bustling development of mining operations, robot geologists, video broadcasters, and a small but growing human outpost — all supported by a mix of commercial and government interests. That’s a bold claim, considering there has been only one soft landing on the moon in the last four decades.
But Bridenstine is hardly alone in his starry optimism
The first step of the race back to the moon is already underway. Five teams are vying for the Google Lunar XPrize, which will award $30 million to the first group to land a rover on the moon, drive it 500 meters, and transmit eight-minute high-definition “mooncasts” back home by March 31, 2018. An extra $4 million goes to any group that lands near one of the Apollo sites and sends back video.
Lunar XPrize rules specify that no more than 10 percent of each team’s budget can come from government funding. The diverse set of contestants includes startups from India, Israel, and Japan, along with a Silicon Valley-backed space-exploration company called Moon Express.
This entrepreneurial approach to space exploration mirrors a consensus view emerging within the Trump administration, traditional aerospace contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and upstarts like SpaceX.
Prospecting for Lunar Water
Blended in with the new commercial competition for the moon are old flavors of national rivalry. Bridenstine is none too pleased that the solitary lunar touchdown since the 1970s was performed not by the U.S. — but by China.
Chinese rocket scientists put the Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover on the moon four years ago. The rover was pronounced dead in August 2016, but the lander was still operating at least three years after landing. In 2018, the China National Space Agency aims to land another probe on the far side of the moon to return samples from a part of lunar surface that has never before been directly explored.
Russia is in the game too, teaming up with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a set of four planned probes that would pick up where Soviet explorations left off in the 1970s. This Luna series would include landers, a lunar-satellite data link, and a surface drilling operation.
Not to be left behind, NASA has been testing the moon-mining rover Resource Prospector, which could launch around 2020. A prototype is now undergoing tests at a proving ground at Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the Apollo missions were directed.
All this activity is fueled by two recent scientific discoveries.
In the mid-1990s, researchers identified mountains and ridges near both of the moon’s poles that bask in continuous sunshine. Placing solar panels near their peaks would neatly solve the problem of how to power a robot — or a human colony — during the two-week-long lunar night.