To the Moon and back (and then Mars)

With all the talk of going back to the moon, we thought it'd be good to recap on who is doing what in the coming years about returning to the Moon.

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Many of the space agencies around the world are being reinvigorated by the prospect of returning to the Moon and are establishing programs for getting there. At Milky-Way.kiwi we’ve often been asked why humanity hasn’t been back to the Moon since the early 1970s and it’s a tricky question to answer because the end of the Apollo programme was a combination of budget, public interest and whole range of other issues occurring at that time. It’s not that we stopped doing anything in space, there was a lot going on with various spacecraft sent around the Solar System and, of course, the International Space Station. Though there is something inspiring and quite exciting about the prospect of humans venturing further and further into deep space, more so than robotic spacecraft whizzing around the place. With this increasing interest in the Moon it’s worth having a look at what the main players are up to.


United States of America

This year was the first meeting of the US National Space Council for 25 years, it is chaired by The Vice President, Mike Pence. The council called for long term exploration and utilisation of the Moon. The NASA administrator noted they would work with industry and other countries to put landers on the Moon in order to explore resources like water. This led to the White House Space Policy Directive One about which Donald Trump said:

“It marks a first step in returning American astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972, for long-term exploration and use. This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprints – we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, and perhaps someday, to many worlds beyond.”

In addition to this reinvigoration of the desire to go to them Moon, NASA has been developing a Deep Space Gateway concept for a while now and the traditional ISS partners have had some preliminary talks with NASA. They announced the gateway concept in March this year and its aim is to provide a way to either get to the Lunar surface or deep space through a kind of a space hub. The plan is to have it in operation in the 2020s and by the end of the decade host a 1 year long mission to test habitability and get ready for the next hop, a trip to Mars. At the International Astronautical Conference in September both Russia and the US announced they would cooperate on the concept. NASA has already awarded a number contracts to US companies to investigate habitation options for any future Space Station.

The development of the heavy lift Space Launch System is another strand in the plan to get to the Moon and beyond. The SLS is scheduled for a test in 2018 with the Orion spacecraft.


In the past Russia has expressed some grand plans for the Moon with announcements about lunar bases and big programmes for sending Cosmonauts there. Lately the announcements have been a little more pragmatic and are signalling cooperation with the US, through continued partnership on the ISS and possible collaboration on the Deep Space Gateway, however that may develop. All of this doesn’t mean Russia that they don’t have their own plans for the Moon with various snippets of news over the last year announcing different aspects of what they intend to do. Russian President, Vladimir Putin, told his Space Chiefs that he wanted a Russian on the Moon within 15 years, this isn’t incompatible with US cooperation but it firmly puts a stake in the sand that Russia has long term sights on being part of whatever happens on the Moon. Putin also mentioned that there was interest in working with the US on the exploration of Mars, so despite the sometimes frosty rhetoric between both nations there is significant willingness to continue to work together in the way that they have done so on the ISS.

Notwithstanding the longer term prospects to do with a space station orbiting the Moon, the Russians are pressing head with plans to put a probe on near the South Pole, this is planned to be followed by an orbiter to study the Moon’s surface. Longer term is discussion about putting some kind of drilling rig on the surface to explore resources. They also announced earlier in the year they were selecting crew for a future mission to the Moon, planned to be carried out by 2031.


In 2003 China became the third country in the world to put a human in space. In 2007 they launched the Chang-e 1 which was a lunar orbital mission to scan the Moon’s surface to identify potential landing sites. Chang-e 2 was launched in 2010 and did an even more complex mission, it mapped the lunar surface in even more detail before heading off to the L2 Lagrangian Point and then off into Deep Space to rendezvous with an asteroid. In December 2013 Chang-e 3 was launched with a lunar rover that landed on the surface and conducted exploration of a small area. This image was from the rover and was reported by the Telegraph.

The next big step is the Chang-e 5 which is planned to be launched in 2019. This mission will collect material from the lunar surface for returning to Earth. There was also some discussion on a probe heading to the dark side of the moon to conduct exploration. As for putting someone on the Moon, an official announced last year that China plans to put someone on the Moon by 2036, at the time a 20 year horizon.


India also has an ambitious programme for the Moon following on from the mostly successful Chandrayaan 1 mission about ten years ago, they lost contact 10 months into its 2 year mission. The Chandrayaan 2 will put a lunar rover on the surface to collect valuable information about conditions there. The interesting things about the Indian Space programme is that they can get quite a lot done for a fraction of the cost of the other space faring nations, they’re planning to spend about $93 million total cost for the mission.

Overall there’s a lot planned for the Moon in the coming years with a number of countries sending rovers and thinking about sending people there. Establishing a permanent presence either on the Moon or in orbit around it is key to making the next step of human exploration deeper into the Solar System, and in particular to Mars.