Recently, Johan-Dietrich Woerner, the head of the European Space Agency reiterated his desire that the next big project that his agency should be to undertake is the construction of a “village” at the South Pole of the moon, according to a Monday story in the BBC. Using inflatable habitats and 3D printing with lunar regolith, Woerner hopes to begin construction as early as 2024, the year the International Space Station is due to end its operational life.
Last month, the Space Review reported that NASA is starting to flesh out its space exploration program for the 2020s, in advance of the planned Mars mission sometime in the 2030s. Besides a lunar orbit mission in 2021 and the Asteroid Redirect Mission in a year to be determined, this program will consist of a series of missions to the vicinity of the moon to test habitats and other technologies that would be useful for the Mars mission. This effort would include international and commercial partners. The missions might also be conducted to the lunar surface should a lander be supplied by one of the partners.
The principle of international cooperation in space has been long established, ever since President Ronald Reagan first proposed what would become the International Space Station with Europe, Japan, and Canada. Later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, President Bill Clinton added Russia as a partner in the space station project, an arrangement which, despite current tensions with Vladimir Putin, has worked rather well.
The United States and Europe are not the only countries with lunar ambitions. China has already landed the Chang’e 3 with the Yutu rover on the lunar surface and is planning more such expeditions. Japan and India have plans for robotic lunar landings in a few years. Even Russia, which the United States beat in the 1960s race to the moon, is contemplating sending cosmonauts to the lunar surface. A number of private groups are vying to land rovers on the moon as part of the Google Lunar XPrize competition.
The arguments for returning to the moon before going to Mars include:
Cis-lunar space and the lunar surface would be a proving ground for Mars on a world just three days away.
The lunar poles contain water ice in permanently shadowed craters. The water would not only support a lunar village as contemplated by the Europeans, but could be refined into rocket fuel to support expeditions to deep space destinations, such as Mars.
Lunar exploration has scientific benefits in its own right, not only by studying Earth’s nearest neighbor for insights into the birth and evolution of the solar system, but also as a platform for radio and optical observatories that could study the universe.
The moon contains potentially valuable materials, such as platinum group metals, rare earths, and helium 3, the latter of which could be a source of limitless, clean energy in future fusion plants.
A joint lunar effort would bind the participants together, fostering peace and international understanding.
Returning to the moon would promote technological development with applications beyond space exploration as well as education and inspiration.
If the United States proposes to start sending missions to cis-lunar space, and if Europe proposes to build its lunar village, it seems that combining the two efforts and adding whatever international and commercial partners as seems appropriate would be a no-brainer. Woemer has hinted that the lunar village would be visited by international partners. The United States is building the Orion deep spacecraft and the heavy lift Space Launch System that would get astronauts most of the way to the moon. Europe proposes to prepare a place for those astronauts to live on the moon. All that is needed is a lander, perhaps provided by a commercial company, to get the astronauts the rest of the way.
The 2020s could see the world returning to the moon.