Back to the Moon…in the Movie Theatre and Real Life

The biographical drama about Neil Armstrong, First Man, will soon arrive at your local movie theater. It’s once again an opportunity for space enthusiasts to relive the great space race era of the 1960s, and the journey of humankind to the Moon.

“Dad, do you know there is an American flag on the Moon? I learned that in school,” my five-year-old says to me after overhearing me talking about the new film. “Wow, learning about space in school? Very good. That is correct my girl, and do you know there are actually six American flags up there?” She then gets bored and walks away to paint.

Knowing American schools, the teacher didn’t tell the young minds some other crucial space facts. The United States was not the first country to ‘get’ to the moon. Russia won there too, like with Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. In fact, a lot more has happened on our closest neighbor 384,403 kilometers away both before and after the Apollo missions. Some of it doesn’t involve the US or NASA.

Russia and China explore the Moon

The Soviet Luna 2 probe that crashed into the lunar surface on September 1959 was almost ten years earlier than the infamous Apollo 11 moon landing and first walk. A few short months prior to “One small step for man,” in September 1968, a handful of turtles and simpler organisms aboard the Soviets’ Zond 5 became the first living beings to make a circumlunar voyage.

Russian lunar exploration didn’t end entirely after the last American moonwalks of Apollo 17, as many are led to believe. In January 1973, the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2 landed at the Sea of Serenity’s eastern edge. Similar missions continued until 1976, with the final adventure being applauded for bringing lunar samples back to our mother Earth.

Moving on, and not to bore you with a chronology of moon exploration, spoiler alert: 2019 is going to be a big Moon year. If all goes as planned, Russia will land on the Moon’s southern pole in 2019. The goal is to test technology that can be used for a permanent lunar outpost in 2023 and a soil retrieval mission in 2025 with the big plan to build a Russian moon base in the 2040s or 2050s.

China, making massive recent strides in its lunar program, plans to launch its Chang’e 5 mission in 2019, the first attempt to bring moon material back to Earth since the 1970s. China set its moon rover Yutu, Chinese for “Jade Rabbit,” down on the Moon’s surface in 2013, in one of the largest craters not just on the moon but the entire solar system, Mare Imbrium. A monumental success of the recent moon exploration era.

Other countries don’t want Russia and China to feel left out. They want to join in this 2019 fun and exploration, so India is coming too. In January-March next year, Chandrayaan-2 will carry an orbiter to travel around the Moon with a lander that will attempt India’s first controlled soft landing, bringing a rover with it.

Like Russia and China, India has been to the Moon before. India’s Chandrayaan-1, meaning “moon craft” in ancient Sanskrit, operated for almost a year (between October 2008 and August 2009). It helped discover evidence of water molecules on the moon. They also brought the famous Indian tricolor flag too and ‘placed’ it on the lunar surface. This time India is more interested in the South Pole, a never before explored part of the moon’s surface. All previous craft have set down near the equator. India will be looking for signs of water and a nuclear fuel called helium-3 in the moon’s crust. Countries and companies alike are keen on exploiting helium-3 because scientists believe it can be used in a kind of nuclear fusion that doesn’t create radioactive waste.

However, if Israel has its way it will beat all three countries to the moon in 2019. Current schedules see Israel landing in February with the probe being launched sometime in December from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Israel will conduct scientific experiments and join the moon flag club of the US, Russia, China, and Japan, by placing a flag on the Moon’s surface via its unmanned spacecraft.

Countries aside, do you think the current ‘private’ king of space, South Africa’s Elon Musk, will miss all this 2019 moon excitement!? Perhaps plans to place a SpaceX flag and/or South African flag on the surface?

Well, not quite yet. In case you were living under a rock over the past couple of weeks. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa bought a ticket on Musk’s rocket to reach lunar orbit. Maezawa will bring six to eight artists with him on SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket or BFR. However, it looks like 2023 at the earliest, and they won’t be landing. One important reason for the latter is money. An interesting fact, between 1963 and 1973, NASA’s Lunar Module program cost $2.24 billion, compared with the Command Module’s $3.73 billion and the Saturn V Rocket’s $6.42 billion. This means, adjusted for inflation, the lander alone cost about $17 billion in 2018 dollars. Just a bit expensive.

What about NASA? Europeans? Anyone else?

One might think at this point, where is Washington in all of this? Forgetting the new U.S. Space Force and the accompanying Star Wars-like memes floating around social media, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s recent speech at Houston’s Johnson Spaceflight Center gives a good indication of NASA’s moon plans. “President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive-1. It is now the official policy of the United States of America that we will return to the moon” said Pence. According to NASA’s website, the space agency will send a two lander demonstration mission to the moon in 2022 to better understand the requirements and systems needed before the ultimate ‘moon’ goal of putting an American crew aboard the Lunar Orbital Platform, which in layman’s terms is America’s lunar space station, before the end of 2024. NASA sees the moon as crucial before sending humans onto Mars.

Two of America’s Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, that work closely with NASA have large moon plans too. However, like NASA, they won’t be part of the 2019 Chinese, Indian, Israeli, and Russian headlines. They have made moon headlines before though when Japanese space probe Kaguya landed on the moon in 2009 and detected uranium, thorium, potassium, magnesium, silicon, calcium, titanium, and iron. Commercial mining one day? Combine this with Helium 3 potential, and Japan wants to go back to take a closer look around. However, some Japanese envision even bigger moon plans like turning it into a colossal solar power plant. Energy plans aside, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) a few weeks ago unveiled plans to develop manned spacecraft for moon landings in 2030, but will first start with an unmanned moon probe in 2021. They are riding high after successfully landing two rovers on the asteroid Ryugu, an amazing feat after a three-and-a-half-year journey abroad their Hayabusa-2 spacecraft.

The Europeans are watching all of this moon activity, and feel it’s logical to combine it all. More specifically, the European Space Agency (ESA) hopes the world’s space agencies and businesses will combine their forces and one day build a permanent lunar base or ‘moon village.’ They envision a plethora of partners developing and providing services in their areas of expertise like transportation to the Moon, rovers, energy/power, or telecommunications. It’s an ambitious exercise, especially if one truly understands capitalism and the current state of international politics. Nevertheless, we can hold thumbs and cross fingers.

If you are a betting man or woman, bet on our Moon. It will undoubtedly make news over the coming weeks and months. Some you might hear about, some you might not. Some could involve Ryan Gosling and his portrayal of Neil Armstrong, others may not. Whatever the critics say about the movie, good or bad, I’m officially declaring 2019 as the year of the Moon. Let’s hope the beautiful celestial body gets the spotlight it deserves. China, India, Israel, Russia…over to you.