Chinese taikonauts will likely beat NASA astronauts back to the lunar surface in as little as five to ten years, longtime lunar scientist and geologist Paul Spudis now tells me. If so, that will happen primarily by default, as the lunar surface continues to drop off NASA’s crewed destination radar. Of course, that doesn’t preclude Russia, the European Space Agency (ESA), or numerous commercial space ventures — who have all expressed a desire to return astronauts to the lunar surface — from getting there sooner. But for now, Spudis thinks the Chinese are most likely to next make it happen.
Spudis, author of the forthcoming, “The Value of the Moon: How to Explore, Live, and Prosper in Space Using the Moon’s Resources,” emphasizes that he does not object to a “Chinese presence” on the lunar surface.
Rather, he objects to the U.S.’ long absence from the lunar surface and what he sees as “our abdication” of responsibility in creating a permanent American presence in cislunar space — the space between the Earth and the Moon. Such a presence, he argues, would guarantee unhindered access to both space commerce and resources available beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO).
Mars , cislunar space, even near-Earth asteroids have all been bandied about as new targets for NASA astronauts. But Spudis argues that it’s our nearest celestial neighbor that is most valuable in unlocking the rest of the solar system to crewed exploration, as noted in “The Value of the Moon.”
A few into cislunar space. Earth and the Moon are nicely framed in this image taken from the aft windows of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998.
As for the likelihood that NASA will first return crews to the lunar surface before sending astronauts to Mars? Spudis says based on current plans, he sees either possibility as extremely unlikely in the “foreseeable future.”
“The push-pull on space policy between [NASA], the Executive branch and Congress prevents any significant forward progress,” said Spudis, himself a recipient of NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal.
As Spudis writes in the book, “…the dirty little secret is that most politicians love human Mars missions … because it is an excellent and proven way to keep the space community pacified by selecting a goal that is so far into the future that no one will be held accountable for its continuing nonachievement.”
And although he casts a jaundiced eye towards the politics of funding, he makes a strong case for public-private partnership if we are to turn cislunar space into the sort of Valhalla Arthur C. Clarke once imagined. At the heart of Spudis’ argument is the tacit assumption that regardless of public opinion, to truly move beyond low-Earth orbit, we still need governmental involvement at the federal level. Here in the U.S. that means NASA. But most of all, we need to move into an era in which travel to and from the Moon becomes so commonplace that it’s almost humdrum; no different from someone flying from London to Singapore. That’s not likely to happen in this generation, but if we hoof it, is certainly achievable by mid-century.
Thus, in “The Value of the Moon,” Spudis details an estimated $88 billion, 16-year nominal program that would begin with robotic spacecraft to the Moon and end with a human-tended lunar base capable of recouping some of its operational costs via sales of water, fuel; even custom habitats for use in cislunar space and beyond.
Courtesy: Smithsonian Press
Although conventional wisdom has been the Moon’s South Pole Aitken basin, Spudis says more data is needed from orbiters and surface rovers, before deciding on an exact site. He notes that the lunar North Pole may turn out to be just as attractive. Two key factors make the poles suitable: a plethora of water ice in permanently shadowed craters and crater peaks that receive almost constant sunlight — great for solar power.
He says one of the first orders of business would be to set up an operational surface radio beacon to guide robotic craft down from lunar orbit. “A repeating, precision pulse [via] any unused VHF or UHF frequency with an estimated 100-kilometer range would do,” said Spudis.
This would mark one of the first steps toward building what Spudis terms a cislunar transcontinental railroad consisting of an Earth to LEO transport, “multiple staging nodes, fuel depots, transit spacecraft, landers, and the lunar outpost.” For the first time, Spudis writes, this would allow access to GEO communications satellites and would allow us to build satellite networks that could provide uninterrupted telecommunications coverage over an entire hemisphere with “enough bandwidth to accommodate thousands of channels of high-definition video, internet traffic, and personal messaging.”
Spudis writes that “remotely operated robotic machines assemble this entire complex before people arrive,” which, in turn, would support a crew of four for biannual lunar visits lasting several weeks at a time.
By the end of the nominal program, he writes, the U.S. would have an operating outpost that produces 150 tons of water per year, which time and again he notes is the most valuable commodity in space.“The Value of the Moon” should be required reading for anyone interested in the future of spaceflight.
“We could start tomorrow if the political decision were made to do it, the first [human lunar return] landing would happen around 2028, with a permanent cislunar transportation system by 2035.” said Spudis.
This post was written by Usman Abrar. To contact the writer write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Facebook