SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft successfully launched this Saturday. Its destination is the International Space Station, and its crew is comprised of four astronauts from different parts of the globe: Jasmin Moghbeli from the United States, Andreas Mogensen from Denmark, Satoshi Furukawa from Japan and Konstantin Borisov from Russia. Although the objectives of the trip are varied (they will perform more than 200 experiments and technology demonstrations), there is one goal that stands out in NASA's plans, as highlighted in a press release:
Research conducted aboard the space station provides benefits for people on Earth and paves the way for future long-duration trips to the Moon through NASA’s Artemis missions.
The race to return to the moon is heating up. Since 1969, when Neil Armstrong uttered his now mythical phrase: "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" when descending from Apollo 11, few have set foot on the satellite again. This is not for lack of trying. There have since been many lunar missions, but for 50 years, no man has walked on the moon.
India wants to be next, and its odds are looking good: the Indian space mission Chandrayaan-3 managed to successfully fulfill its goal by landing on the south pole of the lunar surface. The milestone is not minor, since it became the first spacecraft to land on the south pole of the satellite.
I reached my destination
and you too!'
Chandrayaan-3 has successfully
soft-landed on the moon 🌖!.
— ISRO (@isro) August 23, 2023
The mission's success delighted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who said that the success of the moon landing represented a "victory cry of a new India." In addition, the feat places India among the few countries that managed to land on lunar soil. Only the United States, China and the USSR had achieved such a feat.
Even these global powers often cannot repeat their successes. An example of this is Russia. The country tried to send a spacecraft back to the moon days before India's successful mission, but its Luna-25 mission failed. It was its first operation in decades and intended to be the first country to land on the south pole of the moon, but the Russian ship crashed due to a miscalculation, and a few days later India snatched the milestone.
Countries trying to reach the moon
Efforts to return to the Moon are not only recent. After Apollo 11 landed on the satellite, many countries have tried to land on lunar soil. Japan, Europe, China and India have all tried. However, they did not allocate enough resources to these missions, and their attempts to win the space race were eventually curbed.
However, recent decades have seen a spike in the number of missions. Countries such as Luxembourg, Israel, Korea, Italy and the United Arab Emirates entered the new space race. But why the sudden interest in returning to the Moon?
Mars, resources and prestige
According to ABC, the main cause for recent attempts at moon exploration are related to another mission that these powers are seeking to accomplish: landing on Mars. The report highlights that the satellite is a good middle ground and could establish itself as a "transit station" for space vessels on their way to Mars.
This, however, is not the only reason. Scientists point out that the moon has an abundance of strategic minerals such as Helium-3, which could be vital to create future thermonuclear power plants; aluminum; iron and titanium, materials that could be "indispensable" for humans to continue exploring space.
Water is also a factor. As discovered by several scientists, the south pole of the Moon contains a large amount of water protected in the craters and sheltered from solar radiation, which would allow human consumption. It could be necessary to establish lunar bases, which would use this water as a source of hydrogen and oxygen, materials necessary to create rocket fuel.
However, it is not only resources and Mars missions that is driving countries to participate in this lunar race. Another big factor is prestige. ABC highlights that the first countries that manage to land on the moon will be able to earn great geopolitical gains. In addition, the image, as well as its technological potential, would display significant growth.
The United States and China at the head of the lunar race
Who could win this lunar race? Astronomer and Director of the National Astronomical Observatory (IGN) Rafael Bachiller assures El Mundo that it is not clear but that the strongest opponents are the United States and China:
The real space race is developing today between the U.S. and China, these are the two actors with the greatest technological and financial capacity. I tend to think that the most dangerous initiatives that will come from these powers will be those that come from private companies with a great desire for profit.
In the United States, the initiative with the best chance of success is "Artemis II." The mission will carry American and Canadian astronauts. The journey will begin in 2024 and will be composed of "humanity's crew," according to Bill Nelson, administrator of the aerospace agency:
The Artemis II crew represents thousands of people working tirelessly to bring us to the stars. This is their crew, this is our crew, this is humanity's crew. NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, and Christina Hammock Koch, and CSA [Canadian Space Agency] astronaut Jeremy Hansen, each has their own story, but, together, they represent our creed: 'E pluribus unum' – out of many, one. Together, we are ushering in a new era of exploration for a new generation of star sailors and dreamers – the Artemis Generation.
It's not the only lunar mission the U.S. has planned. NASA announced that it hopes to land on the south pole of the moon by 2026. They will do it hand in hand with Elon Musk and his company, Space X. China hopes to complete its mission to the south pole of the moon before 2030. As stated previously, India has already achieved this feat. It remains to be seen who will be the next country to conquer this space milestone and who will be the next astronauts to join Neil Armstrong and the few Americans who have walked the moon.