Yesterday marked the 45th anniversary of the Moon landing, and the broadcast of Neil Armstrong’s famous first words “its one small step for Man, and one giant leap for Mankind”. Since those first years of frantic exploration, humanity once again left the Moon alone, preferring instead to focus on sending robots to yet further-away destinations.
Now however things are changing. A new space race is gathering steam, driven in part by the nationalistic ambitions of old, but also by commercial mining and tourism. While Nasa are a major player, they are facing strong competition not from the Russians’ aging space infrastructure, but rather from a resurgent China keen to prove its prowess on the world’s largest stage.
In the last decade or so China has made massive strides with its space program. This began in 2003 with the launch of the first Chinese astronaut aboard a Shenzhou spacecraft, and was rapidly followed by the country’s first spacewalk. Then came the construction of the first Chinese space station: Tiangong 1. Alongside this they also have the sights set clearly on the Moon.
As well as sending probes to orbit the Moon, China’s Chang’e program just last year successfully carried out their first soft landing on the Moon, delivering a rover called Jade Rabbit (Yutu) to the surface, where it proceeded to drive around for several weeks. This has been interpreted by many in the space sector to indicate that China is laying the groundwork for a future manned landing.
Such opinions were backed up by reporting in the Chinese state-run People’s Daily where Zhang Yuhua the deputy leader of the Chang’e project said: “In addition to manned lunar landing technology, we are also working on the construction of a lunar base, which will be used for new energy development and living space expansion.” While an official timetable is yet to be released, it is widely assumed that the first landings are planned for between 2025 and 2030.
After 45 years, you might think that NASA is in a hurry to head back to the Moon, but in reality this is not case. In the current NASA road map, the Moon is treated as more of an afterthought. Once their heavy lift Space Launch System (SLS) is complete, it would not be too difficult for NASA to return astronauts to the Moon, probably in the mid 2020s, and however it is currently unclear if they officially plan to.
While NASA has this capability, they also have set their sights on bigger tasks, because the Moon is, well, boring. Rather than going where they have already been, NASA is instead planning missings to land astronauts on a Near-Earth Asteroid, a mission which will be used as a test bed for an ambitious future landing on Mars, probably in the late 2020s or early 2030s.
All said and done, while the timetables that each country has put forward suggest that at this stage China will could reach the Moon first, it is worth noting that previous Chinese space timetables (such as their Tiangong space station) have been beset by numerous delays. In addition, the US currently has two heavy lift rockets in advanced stages of development (SLS and Falcon Heavy) both of which have the lifting capacity to send astronauts to the Moon and beyond, while the Chinese on the other hand have none. Unless they rush the development of this kind of rocket, such a bottleneck could easily cause the US program to rapidly overtake their Chinese competitors. Furthermore, even if they manage to land on on the Moon first, it won’t be much of an achievement, if your competitor is about to land somebody on Mars...
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