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."
Jim Bell, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University and newly named president of the nonprofit Planetary Society, predicts NASA will return to the lunar surface before other comers get there. "It would be great to see other nations do this, but I think that for the most part the other countries are pretty far behind in terms of technical capabilities," he says. "We have the infrastructure and, frankly, more experience to tap into." But Bell also hopes that cooperation will be on the agenda and stresses that the U.S., having already planted its flag on the moon, should not rush to get back at the expense of other priorities. "I don't think it's productive to try to re-create a conflict or a space race that is really the product of a bygone era," he says. "If we can find a way to do it together, it will cost each of us less and we will gain more."
Bell finds the 2020 deadline for reaching the moon, established as part of President Bush's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, troublesome. "It was a best guess—it was set out as a goal, initially," he says. "And it seems to be still being treated as a mandate." Vick also bristles at that timeline, fearing that a hastily assembled deep-space transport system would be irredeemably dangerous. "It's time to step back and slow down and do this job right," he says. "It needs to be re-thought out."
Many believe that by the time humans return to the moon, private agencies be part of the cooperative effort. "I think that commercial enterprises...are extremely well-positioned to be not a competitor to government missions but sort of an add-on," says William Pomerantz, senior director of space projects for the X PRIZE Foundation. The foundation offers monetary prizes to privately funded teams that can reach certain targets—including a $20-million purse for the first robot that lands on the moon, traverses 500 meters (1,640 feet) on the surface and sends data back to Earth.
Pomerantz envisions a future in which governments stretch their budgets by contracting out certain preparatory or support activities to more streamlined private operators. "If you think about a future wherein a commercial capacity to go to the moon for tens of millions of dollars rather than billions of dollars exists," he says, "I think that space agencies are going to find it in their best interest to engage those commercial companies." Private support, Pomerantz says, "will allow the government space agencies to do what they do a little bit better, a little bit faster and a little bit cheaper."