Vol.1, No.6

Manned trips to the moon in the near future

The moon hasn't had any visitors since 1972, but that seems likely to change in the next 10 to 20 years.

Earth's moon
Photo Credit: Yu-qian Wang
In the year 2004, an awful lot of people had their eye on the moon, and it wasn't just the United States anymore with designs on putting a few extra footprints in the lunar dust up there.

To be certain, there has been renewed U.S. interest lately in a return trip to the moon, too, but several Asian countries have decided that they want to get in on the act, and that's what makes this new-millenium space exploration so much different than what we saw in the 20th century.

Japan, for example, was set to launch a lunar probe project in summer 2004, but had to delay those plans because some of its parts were recalled by their U.S. manufacturer. That mission, dubbed Lunar-A, was originally rescheduled for this year (2005) but will now likely not take place until 2006.

In addition, a larger-scale Japanese lunar exploration project named SELENE was moved from 2005 until 2006 while officials investigated why an H-2A rocket carrying two Japanese satellites veered off course in November 2004 (the H-2A is the same type of rocket needed for the lunar mission). As of early 2005, that mission had been delayed again (partly because of Lunar-A delays), and was expected to take place by 2008. Among SELENE's missions is one to obtain data that will help determine ways to utilize the moon's resources.

In 2004, China was making a great deal of noise around plans to send humans to the moon by 2020, after sending unmanned lunar probes by 2010. Partly, this exuberance seems to have be caused by China's successful manned orbit of the earth in 2003, an event that made the country part of the very small club of nations that have sent humans into space at all. By late 2004 or early 2005, though, China was stepping back from the goal of a manned mission to the moon, saying that such a mission would be too costly. Instead, the world's most populous nation is planning to build its own manned space station by 2020 (give or take) and send a probe to the moon in the near future.

For its part, India also was talking about walking on lunar soil, drafting plans to put astronauts on the moon, with a goal of doing so by 2015. But in 2004, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), like China, began to rethink plans for a manned mission to the moon.

"Whatever a man can do in space, it can be done with instrumentation, also," G. Madhavan Nair, head of the ISRO, told media outlets. "This program is going to be very, very expensive. So, a national debate is required whether we have to embark on a manned mission or not."

Although the manned mission in now in doubt, the ISRO still says that it is on track to launch a vessel named Chandraayan-1 to enter lunar orbit and conduct experiments. That was supposed to take place in the latter half of 2005 but now seems more likely to occur in 2007, or perhaps even 2008.

So, what about the ole U.S.A.?

In January 2004, President George W. Bush, despite the fact that the space shuttle program was still grounded and budgets for space exploration seriously in doubt, announced plans to send humans back to the moon as early as 2015 (though probably more likely by 2020). This was part of a much larger space plan, which also includes a variety of unmanned robotic exploration activities in space and a proposed manned mission to Mars, most likely after the moon is revisited for the first time since December 1972. The first step in all of this is a planned lunar probe mission that, at the current time, seems likely to launch in 2008. That mission is dedicated to obtaining the science and engineering measurements needed for future exploration.

So, why all the attention on our closest neighbor, despite being obviously lifeless?

There are a number of reasons, from the notion of simply expanding our knowledge of the moon for purely scientific satisfaction to renewing our sense of exploration in general. But a lot has to do with commercialization as well. There are a great many reasons to think that the moon could be a good source of raw materials for use in earthly projects or for space station projects and more distant spacecraft journeys. Also, the possibilities for lunar research stations that allow for zero-gravity conditions is attractive for various forms of biological, pharmaceutical, and other research endeavors.

Also, while it is currently governments who are planning the trips to the moon, it is the commercial companies who help build the machines that carry astronauts and probes into space. Those companies are likely to one day be the ones who want to set foot on the moon themselves instead, for purely profit-making reasons if nothing else.

Finally, there is that spark in all of us who look up at the night sky, and the fact that plenty of people on this planet would pay a mint to be able to be the first tourists in space at all, much less the first tourists on the moon.