Chandrayaan-2’s launch may have hit a temporary snag, but the new-age race to the Moon is well and truly here
A key reason for the waning lunar focus was the fact that the Moon missions of the 1960s had been fuelled less by science, or the spirit of adventure, than by geopolitics
Fifty years ago, on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong climbed down from Apollo 11’s lunar module Eagle and became the first man to set foot on the Moon. What he said thereafter became one of the most famous lines spoken in the 20th century: “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind." It was a truly magical moment. Those grainy images of two astronauts shuffling awkwardly across the desolate airless terrain remain awe-inspiring. Their effect 50 years ago—the sense of wonder and the sheer joy at human achievement they evoked—can only be imagined.
And then, for nearly half a century, there was little interest in the Moon. The Apollo project ended in 1972, after putting ten more Americans on the Moon. Yes, space exploration did take place. Unmanned probes have investigated every planet in the solar system and the twin Voyager spacecraft are now in interstellar space, more than 11 billion miles away and still communicating with Earth. We also have an International Space Station, about 250 miles above the Earth. The US space shuttle flew 135 times.
A key reason for the waning lunar focus was the fact that the Moon mission had been fuelled less by science, or the spirit of adventure, than by geopolitics. As the Cold War raged on Earth, the Soviets were ahead in the skies—with Sputnik, the first artificial satellite in space (1957), and Luna 2, the first man-made object to reach the Moon (1959). When, in April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth, the US was shaken.
President John F. Kennedy proposed the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth" by the end of the decade.
In September 1961, at Rice University in Houston, Kennedy made his famous “Moon speech".
“For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the Moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace," he said. “Yet the vows of this nation can only be fulfilled if we are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first." His emphasis on “first" made it clear: this was a race—the space race.
Man on the moon
The goal that Kennedy had set space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) was an incredible stretch target. But it was national pride at stake in a starkly bipolar world. In 1966, an astounding 4.4% of the federal budget was allotted to Nasa. Even as the US went through upheavals that would change the country forever—the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, and the rise of the counter-culture, the Apollo mission remained untouched, and public support undiminished. The astronauts—clean-cut, all-American white men—were heroes. Only decades later would revelations come about Nasa’s African-American women scientists whose key contributions to the programme had gone entirely unrecognised at the time.
Today, the fact that men walked on the Moon just 66 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight seems like a miracle.
The renewed interest in space over the last half-decade has been sparked off principally by two factors: one, a few super-billionaires who find their planet too small for their ambitions; and two, the untold riches that could be harvested from mining extra-terrestrial bodies like the Moon and asteroids for high-value metals and other resources. For instance, the Moon is estimated to have over a million tonnes of helium-3, a critical fuel for any future nuclear fusion reactor, the Holy Grail of energy technology. Helium from the Moon could be enough to meet the world’s current energy demands for up to five centuries, and each tonne of helium-3 is worth almost $5 billion. Then, there is water of course. Astronauts need it, and it can be split into hydrogen and oxygen for use as rocket fuel. In fact, mining will not be economically viable unless the use of local water in rocket fuel is worked out.
As for the mega-billionaires, Jeff Bezos’ space dreams are much older than Amazon. In his 1982 high school graduation speech, he said he wanted to preserve the Earth by getting everyone off the planet and turning it into “a huge national park". Today, Bezos pumps $1 billion every year into his aerospace firm Blue Origin, which aims to put men on the Moon by 2024. In February, Bezos speculated: “The Solar System can support a trillion humans, and then we’d have 1,000 Mozarts and 1,000 Einsteins. Think how incredible and dynamic that civilization will be." Presumably, Amazon will also be delivering stuff and streaming entertainment to these trillion people.
Bezos’s space ambitions get fewer media coverage than Elon Musk’s because of Musk’s much higher extrovert quotient. Musk has spoken about “colonising" Mars and settling there himself. On 7 July, he tweeted that his company SpaceX had solved a niggling problem with the engine powering Starhopper, the prototype for Mars vehicle Starship. The first Starship round-the-Moon trip, targeted for 2023, has been fully booked by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who plans to take artists and performers with him, who will create works inspired by what they see. “If John Lennon could have seen the curvature of the Earth, what kind of songs would he have written?" Maezawa has said.
Meanwhile, British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is going to be the first publicly-traded company dedicated to human spaceflight. Robert Bigelow, who made his billions from his budget hotel chain, plans to set up Earth-orbiting hotels. The private space technology industry has exploded. Wikipedia lists 101 “human spaceflight companies", from Ad Astra Rocket Company, a Texas-based rocket propulsion tech firm, to Zero2Infinity, a Spanish developer of high-altitude balloons that will carry pods and launchers to provide access to near space. India too has space start-ups, and according to a recent Mint report, investors are interested.
In 2015, President Barack Obama signed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitive Act into law, guaranteeing American citizens and companies rights to own, sell and profit from resources extracted from celestial bodies. That is, finders keepers. In August 2017, Luxembourg permitted space resources to be “appropriated" by commercial groups based in the country. Many companies have since then set up shop in Luxembourg.
The UN Outer Space Treaty of 1967 holds that outer space is “the province of all mankind", but also insists that “the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be free for exploration and use". The word “use" is now being interpreted by countries and businesses as a licence to make profits. But the treaty also avers that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means".
So, if a country lays claim to territory on the Moon, it would be breaching international law on Earth, which could lead to some nasty stand-offs. But the UN treaty is silent about private ownership, because, in 1967, no one had imagined that possibility. However, what about conflict between countries where the companies are registered and pay their taxes? So, as we blast off into space, we are also entering a legal void with possible geopolitical fallout.
There are other issues too. Setting up industries in space has a huge cost of entry but can generate gargantuan returns. This could create monopolies on an unprecedented scale, vastly enriching a few, and deepening inequality. Add to that the possibility that after seriously damaging our planet’s environment, we will now start destroying the fragile ecology of the Moon, our beloved and closest neighbour.
The US government’s Artemis programme, named after a Greek moon goddess and the twin sister of Apollo, aims to send people back to the Moon by 2024 (also Blue Origin’s target year). Nasa plans to build a permanent lunar base and a space station orbiting the Moon to prepare for a human journey to Mars by 2033. In his 4th of July address, Donald Trump exalted: “For Americans, nothing is impossible.…We’re going to be back on the Moon very soon, and, someday soon, we will plant the American flag on Mars."
Naturally, China too wants to be a leading space power. In January, Chang’e 4, an uncrewed spaceship, became the first vehicle to land on the Moon’s far side (yes, “the dark side of the Moon", never visible from the earth, but it’s actually well-lit). The spacecraft carried a “mini-biosphere" to test whether fruit flies and a variety of plants and seeds—cotton, rapeseed, potato, yeast and a flowering plant—can work together to create a self-contained food chain in lunar conditions. Chinese state media has claimed that the biosphere may produce the first flower on the Moon.
China plans to send “taikonauts" to the Moon, but has not announced any dates. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) wants to land astronauts on the Moon by 2029 and is designing a vehicle with Toyota that can traverse the lunar surface.
India’s moon shot
India launched its lunar orbiter Chandrayaan-1 in October 2008. On 14 November that year, its probe struck the lunar surface with the Indian tricolour. India thus became the fourth country—after the US, Russia and China—with its flag on the Moon. For about a year, Chandrayaan-1 surveyed the lunar surface, studying its chemical characteristics and developing a three-dimensional map of its topography. Its most important achievement was the discovery of the widespread presence of water molecules on the lunar soil.
Chandrayaan-2, India’s second Moon mission was supposed to lift off at 2:51am on 15 July, 44 hours and 11 minutes short of the moment 50 years ago when Apollo 11 blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre on Merritt Island, Florida. But it was not to be. At 1:55am, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) decided to delay the launch due to a technical glitch. The final launch date will be announced soon. This is all for the good, because Chandrayaan-2 is a hugely ambitious project and cannot afford the slightest bit to go awry. Its lander, Vikram, will be the first Indian spacecraft to land on the Moon. The south polar region, where it will land, has a much larger area in the Sun’s shadow than at the north pole, and is expected to contain more water and more minerals. Vikram will remain stationary, while its rover Pragyan will inch along over the surface—both vehicles conducting experiments and relaying data to ground control. Manned space flights are also in the works. Isro is targeting December 2021 for a three-member seven-day flight. And an independent space station by 2030.
About 50 days after Chandrayaan-2’s launch, Vikram (Pragyan is housed inside it) will start dropping toward the Monn from a height of 100km. At 30km from the surface, the final descent will begin for the soft landing. This will be the most complex operation Isro has ever undertaken. But then, Isro is one Indian organization that has made a habit of raising its bar very high and always reaching it. Chandrayaan-2 is also a global pathbreaker. It is the world’s first mission to the Moon’s south pole. And among its objectives is to contribute to answering a fundamental question: Where did the Moon come from? The south pole may be hiding some clues.