BACK TO THE FUTURE: In this NASA artist's depiction, three astronauts work near their lunar lander. As part of its Constellation Program to build a new spacecraft that can return humans to the moon by 2020, the U.S. space agency is currently seeking input from industry experts and developing conceptual designs, including those for a lunar lander, dubbed Altair. Image: NASA
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When Apollo 8 launched for the moon in 1968, the heavens were primarily the domain of the two superpowers. Today space has been opened to myriad nations by vast technological advances and increased international cooperation. A telling example of the new celestial order came two months ago when India launched its first moon mission, the unmanned Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft. The satellite, now in lunar orbit, carried Indian instruments as well as those from the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA and Bulgaria—an arrangement far removed from the nationalist striving of the U.S.–Soviet space race.
As the world's numerous space agencies turn their attention back to manned space exploration of the moon and beyond, the future taking shape reflects space's democratization over the past 40 years. It is not clear whether the next country to land humans on the moon, a feat that has not been accomplished since 1972, will be the U.S., China, Russia or some other nation. Perhaps it will be a collaboration among nations or even a private firm operating outside the usual constraints of a nationalized space program. Although the specifics of manned lunar exploration over the coming decades are unclear, many experts see vast opportunities for space-faring bodies to work in concert toward loftier goals.
"The basic science and technology [of space travel] represents a major area of cooperation between countries," says Charles Vick, a senior technical intelligence analyst at globalsecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va., think tank. "I don't consider it competition; I consider it laying the foundation, ultimately, for manned expeditions to Mars."
Vick echoes a statement made by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin last year that China, should it choose to do so, could land a manned mission on the moon before the U.S. returns, which is currently slated to happen by 2020. "I would have to agree with that," Vick says, calling the Chinese space program "very well planned, very well thought out." China has already put astronauts into orbit, becoming only the third country to do so in 2003; this past September, Chinese astronauts completed their country's first spacewalk.
Vick believes a Chinese voyage around the moon, much like Apollo 8, could happen even sooner. "They already have the capability," he says, "to do a lunar circumnavigation mission just about anytime they want to in unmanned form, and then ultimately fly it manned."
Russia could also pull off a manned circumlunar mission in the coming years, Vick says. Space Adventures, Ltd., a Vienna, Va., space tourism company that has sent six clients to the International Space Station, even advertises a circumlunar trip aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for $100 million per seat. And the head of the Russian space agency last year announced plans to send cosmonauts to the lunar surface around 2025. But Anatoly Zak, an expert on the Russian space program who runs russianspaceweb.com, thinks those projections are a bit inflated. He does not think that Soyuz will be ready for a lunar flyby anytime soon, and says that "without a significant increase in funding and drastic reforms within the industry, any manned lunar mission could not be achieved by 2025, in my opinion."
Other nations with lunar ambitions include India, Japan and the ESA, all of which have proposed, at least informally, manned moon missions in the next two decades or so. But none of those space agencies has yet achieved independent manned spaceflight, and many technological and economic hurdles stand in the way of a moon landing. "They're really just getting started," Vick says. "I don't see those nations being able to do such a thing without cooperation."