Closer Look: Humanity’s Return to the Moon

by | June 23, 2024, 2:18 PM | In-depth

I am a post-Apollo baby. Throughout my entire career, I’ve listened to the stories from senior researchers about how they watched men walk on the moon and thus became astronomers or planetary scientists. Me… I watched science fiction and decided if I wasn’t going to fly among the stars I’d study them instead.

Over the years, I’ve heard a fairly consistent tale from those elder scientists – they thought they’d grow up to live in a world where space exploration was just an everyday experience; one that included the same kinds of research stations on the Moon that we’ve had so long in Antarctica. While they didn’t get to see this kind of exploration in the prime of their careers, it seems they may be building this kind of a reality, as a parting gift, for the generations coming up behind them.

Right now, NASA has plans to land four humans on the south pole of the Moon no earlier than September 2026. Parallel to the US efforts, China is looking to land 2 humans by 2030, and India is working toward launching their first humans to space on locally constructed hardware in the next few years as they too work toward potentially putting people on the Moon. This new space race is leading to next generation hardware development as well as the funding of science in support of these future landings.

As so often happens when large amounts of money are involved, the path toward humanity’s lunar future isn’t without questionable actions, risks, and a few explosions… although the explosions here are literal.

“To the Moon” has always been a presidential idea

NASA has been working on plans to fly beyond Low Earth Orbit or LEO as at least a background task continuously since the Apollo missions. In 1989, George Bush called for the construction of the Space Station Freedom, which would serve as a jumping off point for the Moon and Mars.

The designs of the time included facilities for on-orbit construction, making the space station not just useful for getting beyond LEO, but also necessary. 

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and changing political winds, plans for the Space Station Freedom were scrapped in favor of the International Space Station we have today – a station without construction facilities.

Under the Clinton administration, NASA was directed toward robotic exploration with the commercial sector being called on to step forward as the US government looked for ways to move “away from international launch quotas toward an international commercial environment characterized by free and fair trade in commercial launch services.”

It would be the second President Bush, in 2004, who would demand a return to the Moon, stating that “America will return to the Moon as early as 2015 and no later than 2020 and use it as a stepping stone for more ambitious missions. A series of robotic missions to the Moon, similar to the Spirit Rover that is sending remarkable images back to Earth from Mars, will explore the lunar surface beginning no later than 2008 to research and prepare for future human exploration. Using the Crew Exploration Vehicle, humans will conduct extended lunar missions as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods.”

While 2020 has come and gone without the imagined missions, it is actually this edict that set us on the path we’re on today. The Crew Exploration Vehicle from Bush’s plan became NASA’s Constellation program, which included the Orion capsule and the Ares I and Ares V rockets. An Ares I was actually tested in 2009 before Obama canceled the Ares rockets for being over budget and behind schedule. The Orion capsule, however, continues to be developed for deep space travel and adapted for use on the Artemis program atop United Launch Alliance’s Artemis rocket. 

This program was given new energy under Trump and has been continued under Biden.

New economics for the New Lunar Future

Under the new plan, NASA is using commercial suppliers to provide rockets, landers, and more thru new fixed-fee contracts. For decades, NASA would contract companies to innovate technologies and pay for the complete development and manufacturing process in addition to paying a fee. This meant that companies could become wildly over budget and extend development times for years with NASA picking up its bill. For decades, this kind of a model funded aerospace companies who manufactured technologies exclusively for NASA.  With fixed cost contracts, companies are incentivized to get things done on time and on budget so they don’t lose money on government contracts, and they are also incentivized to find commercial uses for their goods so that more customers can allow them to better cover their costs and potentially turn a profit. 

This idea that NASA is just another customer for aerospace companies is baked into the new commercial space era, and it is both facilitating important changes and causing new issues. For instance, by providing contracts for space launches to both SpaceX for Crew Dragon and Boeing for StarLiner, NASA for the first time in history assured that the USA can’t be grounded when one kind of spacecraft is grounded. It also means that when one program gets delayed, like Starliner, other technologies can allow programs to continue forward.

It is clear this kind of a model has worked well with the SpaceX Crew Dragon which is also seeing use by private spacefarers through the Inspiration4, Axiom series, and future Polaris Dawn flights.

Starliner, however, has only just managed, several years late, one mission to the ISS. At the time of this recording, it is still docked and slated to return no earlier than June 18. 

This new model is going to take companies … and congress… time to adjust to. 

And Congress is finding it has to adjust.

When congress doesn’t allow more than one vendor to be used, as it initially decided to do with the human-rated Lunar Lander for Artemis, we are all left hoping that development that must be motivated by more than just a federal contract will find needed business and also won’t get distracted by its other business needs.

StarShip & Blue Moon will ferry us to the future

In April 2021, NASA awarded SpaceX a fixed-cost contract of $2.89 billion to develop the Human Landing System variant of StarShip with the goal of landing 2 people on the moon in each of 2 separate missions. The intention is for an uncrewed lunar landing to take place in 2025 with a human mission landing no earlier than September 2026. Until recently, there was no funded alternative and as we watch SpaceX continue to not quite get a StarShip back to earth without damage, people like me become concerned that they won’t be able to build the needed craft and develop the needed on orbit refueling technologies on the required time scales. If it doesn’t, then NASA will need to continue to fund their own Artemis related activities in different ways for different periods of time, and those kinds of costs ultimately mean that funding won’t be available for other tasks.

Put simply, in a closed budget, overspending in one area means loss of funding in other areas.

SpaceX is currently slated to provide hardware and support to the Artemis 3 and 4 lunar landings. As of May 19, there is a new player joining in.

NASA awarded Blue Origin and its collaborators a contract for Artemis 5 to provide services on their Blue Moon lander. Like SpaceX, they are also expected to do an uncrewed test landing. This $3.4 billion contract comes 3 years after Blue Origin sued NASA over their original decision to select SpaceX. Artemis V is slated for March 2030. Uncrewed missions of a Mark 1 version designed to carry cargo are slated for 2025 with a larger Mark 2 for humans coming later. 

The Blue Moon lander is a smaller and more conservative spacecraft when compared to Starship. Its development began in 2016, and it is designed to launch in the fairing of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is expected to launch for the first time in September of this year, 2024. It will measure just 16 m tall and carry payloads up to 20 tonnes.

While size is the biggest difference between StarShip HLS and Blue Moon at first glance, a much deeper difference stands out when economics are looked at. StarShip is being designed as an earth to space reusable vehicle for launching satellites and more, with the additional goals of one day carrying humans to Mars, and somewhere in there also doing ferry work carrying humans between the Lunar surface and space. These are a lot of goals to rest on the fins of one spacecraft line.

At the same time, Blue Moon is designed for one thing: delivering things to and from the surface of the moon, and it’s partnership between Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Draper, Boeing, Astrobotic, and Honeybee Robotics hint at future lunar missions plans beyond just Artemis V. 

And it is the promise of other kinds of missions that makes the next-generation commercial flights so intriguing. Yes, NASA is currently the primary contractor for Lunar exploration in the US, but that can very well change. It may be that one day the cost of going to the moon will make it possible for researchers to fly lunar experiments with the ease that we now fly sounding rockets and weather balloons. I’d guess we’re a few decades from that future, but for the first time in my life I can dream of that future, and be glad that the future the Boomes expected Gen Alpha just might live.

It’s more than just the US reaching for the Moon

This week I really only had time to go into detail on the US lunar plan and changes to our space program.

This is what is close to home to me, literally, as an American. But it is important to remember that China is systematically completing their own checklist toward human travel to the Moon. Today, they have their own space station, and they have been systematically progressing from orbiting the moon, to landing, and even returning lunar samples. Chang’e 6 launched on May 3, landed on the Moon on June 1 and then took back off with a sample on June 3 with an expected return to Earth on June 25. I have no doubt their plan to land humans by 2030 will be at least close to on time. 

A new race is on – and this time the competitors are a mix of nations and corporations. And dreamers… there are always dreamers when space exploration is the goal.