NASA and SpaceX are among the key players leading a surge of missions to the moon, including crewed ones. Here’s what is special about this moment – and why it is happening
“As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just say what I believe history will record: that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow.” These were some of the last words spoken on the moon as NASA astronaut Eugene (Gene) Cernan climbed the ladder back into his lunar module in 1972.
Contrary to Cernan’s hopes, no one has since set foot on the lonely, cratered world that orbits our own. But that is about to change, because the US is planning to send people back to the moon by 2025 and set up a permanent base there. Add to that the plans of China and other nations, not to mention the deluge of robotic missions, and it is clear that we are entering a new era of lunar exploration. The question is, after so many years, why now?
This article is part of a special package in which we explore:
How to build a permanent moon base
How to regulate the mining of lunar resources
Why military forces see the moon as a new strategic priority
The decision to end the Apollo programme was made well before Cernan left his footprints on the moon. “Apollo didn’t end because it was too expensive or because it was unsustainable – the sunk costs were already sunk,” says Mary Lynne Dittmar, an influential figure in space policy at the firm Axiom Space. The adventures ended because Apollo was set up to win a politically motivated race, in which the US wanted to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. With that goal achieved, the moon was no longer a priority.
The forces shaping our return to the moon today are dramatically different. In the 1970s, every mission was an epic, do-or-die affair led by the US or the Soviet Union at incredible expense. Each project was defined in advance and then the machinery of the state would strain every sinew to make it happen. Today, the cost of going to space is lower, so many other nations and private companies can afford to get involved (see “Runners and riders” below). Reduced costs also mean they can try missions out and see what works.
In the past few years, China has ramped up activity, sending a probe to the far side of the moon, among other impressive feats. It has committed to a joint China-Russia robotic research station, and it says crewed missions are possible by 2030, though it hasn’t released firm plans for now.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that the US is still at the forefront of space exploration. NASA’s Artemis programme is taking centre stage. Its first mission, Artemis I, will be an uncrewed journey far beyond the moon using the purpose-built Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket ever built. It was due to launch earlier this month, but two attempts have been called off due to problems with fuelling. (As New Scientist went to press, the earliest planned launch date was 19 September.)
Still, if all goes well, the project is set to reach a momentous milestone in 2025 when another two people will follow in Cernan’s footsteps, including the first woman on the moon. “One of my deepest hopes, and obviously his, was that Gene Cernan would live to see us back there,” says Dittmar. Cernan passed away in 2017. “He almost made it.”
It would be easy to be sceptical about NASA’s ability to pull off these plans so quickly. After all, the agency has been here before. In 2005, it began a programme called Constellation, with goals that included sending humans to the moon by no later than 2020 and eventually on to Mars. It was binned in 2010. But there is a consensus in the space science community that Artemis is different. “Something that has doomed some other projects in the past has been that they’ve been US-only, but Artemis has momentum,” says Laura Forczyk at space consulting firm Astralytical. “I don’t think it would have gotten that momentum if it wasn’t for international partnerships.”
The Artemis programme
Artemis is one giant collaboration. Various components of the missions are being contributed by the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and others. “That’s very different from Apollo,” says engineer Erika Alvarez, who is part of NASA’s Artemis team. The design and build of critical pieces of technology, such as moon landers and the planned moon-orbiting space station, will be contracted out to private companies. While the first flights will be powered by the government-owned SLS rocket, NASA’s plan is that some subsequent trips carrying cargo to the moon will be aboard Starship, a similarly huge rocket designed and built by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX. (It is vastly cheaper to run than SLS and some observers think it could and should end up replacing SLS entirely.)
The north pole of the moon
NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
You might ask why it has taken so long to get to this point. One reason is that humanity’s great space project for the past 20 years has been the International Space Station, a collaboration between the space agencies of the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe. This taught us how to have people in space for extended periods. But equally, the time spent ignoring the moon has meant that many of the engineers who worked on the Apollo missions have retired or died, and some of that expertise has to be rebuilt through extensive testing of the new hardware and processes. “There are some things that were learned the hard way that you don’t want to learn again the same way,” says Dittmar.
It isn’t just the rocket that has to be tested – a massive amount of new technology will be required too. “We’re doing everything from food technology, to modifying our toilets so that they’re built to last, to the environmental control systems,” says Alvarez.
Why are we sending people back to the moon?
To say it is a tricky task would be an understatement, which might make some people wonder: why bother going back at all? There is the chance to cash in on lunar resources. But if you ask NASA, it says its principle rationale is that returning to the moon is a vital precursor for a trip to Mars, where it wants to send a cadre of astronauts by the late 2030s.
The first people to visit Mars will face a nine-month trip to get there and they will have to stay for months before making the return journey. With that in mind, learning to set up an independent settlement on the moon will be essential before we can seriously contemplate a sojourn on the Red Planet. “The moon is a perfect platform to test all these technologies, the equipment, the maintenance and repairs – because from the moon, we can get back home,” says Alvarez.
Some argue that sending people off world isn’t worth the trouble. If the point is to explore and do science, send robots: they are much hardier and more adaptable than humans. They may not be able to interpret the landscape around them or do science quickly, but they can send pictures and data home.
However, as Dittmar says, perhaps the renewed thrust to send people back to moon is just human nature: our species loves to explore. “Why in the world would you get into something called a boat and go over water when you can’t swim through it?,” she says. “Why would you go through a mountain pass or over an ice bridge? There’s something in our make-up; it makes sense to us biologically. All that’s happened now is that our technology has evolved the same way it did to take us out of Africa and across oceans, and now it’s evolved to take us off the planet. I don’t see it as any different from the rest of human history.”
Runners and riders
The US has the most ambitious goals, with NASA’s Artemis programme aiming to return people to the moon by 2025. The agency also plans a sequence of increasingly complex missions throughout the 2020s, with rovers, surface bases, power grids and an orbiting space station all featuring.
Among Russian plans for the coming years are a rover project and a mission to return rock samples to Earth. The country’s space agency, Roscosmos, has said the first mission, named Luna 25, will launch in 2023 and do research on lunar ice and dust.
Recently, China has carried out a series of impressive lunar missions, including sending the first probe to the far side of the moon. It also says it wants to put people on the moon, perhaps by 2030. And in 2021, China and Russia agreed to build the International Lunar Research Station, a facility on the moon staffed by robots. The aim is for it to be operational by 2036, and humans could go there eventually.
India has sent several robotic missions to the moon, but has no plans for crewed missions as yet.
Japan’s Lunar Exploration Program sent a rover to the moon in 2007, and several other robotic missions are in the works. The long-term goal is to have Japanese astronauts participate in a future international moon base.
Both through the European Space Agency and its many private space companies, Europe is working with the US on Artemis. Canada’s space agency is doing likewise.
Companies will also play a crucial role in the Artemis missions. SpaceX is a linchpin in the plans, as its Starship rocket should carry equipment to the surface. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin is developing a vehicle called Blue Moon to land cargo or people. Many other companies plan to go to the moon too.