Objective Moon, episode 2
On 21 July 1969, the world watched in amazement as Armstrong and Aldrin took their first steps on the moon. Fifty years later, the moon is once again whetting appetites. It is being seen as a base for extra-terrestrial life, an outpost post for journeys to Mars, and as the first destination for a nascent space tourism industry. The moon continues to inspire us.
Going back to stay!
While Beijing achieved a world first in January 2019, landing Chang’e 4 on the still unexplored hidden side of the moon, NASA announced in May that it wanted to return, this time on a long-term basis. The program, christened Artemis, envisages an unmanned reconnaissance mission in 2020, followed by the big return of men to the moon in 2024. The mission will be performed by the Orion space capsule, for which Airbus Defense and Space is finalizing the European Service Module (ESM-2). The US space agency (NASA) is actively working on plans for the Space Gateway orbital station, which will serve as a relay before the moon landing and as a departure point for long-distance missions, to Mars in particular. It also plans to build a lunar base by 2028.
For its part, the European Space Agency (ESA) has signed a design contract with ArianeGroup for an exploration project before 2025, as part of a 100% European consortium. The purpose of this mission would, among other things, be to transport, using an Ariane 64, the equipment needed to study exploitation of mantle-rock, an ore from which water and oxygen can be extracted, allowing the possibility of an autonomous human presence on the moon, and the production of fuel.
Robotic exploration of the moon will also allow us to study its origin, structure, history and current state, and to deepen our research into the presence of water.
Exploiting lunar resources
The use of in situ resources is in fact the only way to produce certain consumables required for long-distance explorations (fuel for the return journey, water for the crew, etc.). The number 1 goal of the prospectors is to exploit the water present in the lunar poles. By separating the hydrogen and the oxygen contained in the water, then mixing them, we can actually obtain fuel for spacecraft.
Exploitation of lunar resources with a view to bringing them to earth is also envisaged. For example, the lunar soil contains helium 3, a rare gas on earth, which could in theory be used to produce energy on our planet. Indeed, this atom is the ideal fuel for nuclear fusion, its use would produce 50 times more energy than that generated by our current nuclear power plants.
Civil and commercial flights
In 2003, the successful sub-orbital flight of SpaceShipOne, the first private aircraft to reach an altitude of 100 kilometers – the internationally agreed space boundary – ushered in the era of space tourism. Since then, a race against the clock has taken place between several private operators, and seems to have accelerated in recent months.
On 23 January, 2019, the New Shepard rocket launched by Blue Origin, the company owned by Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, reached a height of 107 kilometers. The capsule is intended to carry six astronaut passengers for an 11-minute trip above the space boundary. A month later, Virgin Galactic, owned by Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin, sent a single passenger into space for the first time, alongside the two pilots at the controls of SpaceShipTwo: Beth Moses, future chief instructor for astronaut customers. Finally, on March 3, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting 400 kilometers above the earth. The American billionaire Elon Musk has thus demonstrated the ability of the Crew Dragon to transfer astronauts between earth and the ISS (a task which only the Russian Soyuz capsule could perform after the last flight of the American shuttle Endeavor in 2011). SpaceX should also put its first passengers into orbit on Dragon this summer. Last but not least, Musk’s company announced in autumn 2018 that it had sold its first tourist flight round the moon to Yusaku Maezawa, the contemporary art collector. The launch is expected in 2023 aboard the BigFalcon Rocket, a launch vehicle currently under development.
Fifty years after the first step on the moon, humanity is taking another giant leap towards the departure of the first space tourists, to the moon in the near future and perhaps one day, to Mars.