Who Will Return Humans to the Moon First?
Orion capsule (artist's impression). Credit: NASA

Who Will Return Humans to the Moon First?

10/03/2017Written by Tamela Maciel

SpaceX, NASA, and China are all making separate plans to return humans to the Moon. Who’s the most likely?

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mascot Telescope Right
Credit: NASA

It seems that the Moon is the hot ‘new’ destination for space travel again. Everyone from NASA and the Trump administration to the China National Space Administration to private companies SpaceX and Blue Origin have been making recent noises about returning to the Moon. And let’s not forget the European Space Agency’s long-term vision of a Moon Village.

The big surprise came from SpaceX last week when they made the announcement that they plan to fly two space tourists (as yet unnamed) on a trip around the Moon by the end of next year, 2018. If successful, such a mission would return humans to the vicinity of the Moon for the first time in over 40 years, and would beat NASA’s own current plans to place astronauts into lunar orbit by 2021.

Now, there’s no reason to doubt that SpaceX’s plan to send people on a flight around the Moon will happen. After all, SpaceX is a commercial company and they have just found a market with paying customers. The question is, when?

Which group will actually be the first to return humans to the Moon? And because that’s a two-part question, who will be the first to fly humans around the Moon and who will be the first to land humans on the Moon again?

SpaceX

SpaceX
Artist concept of Falcon Heavy and Dragon. Credit: SpaceX

We know from sixty years of space exploration that mission timelines are rarely fixed. More often than not, timelines slide ‘to the right’, delayed by inevitable setbacks and sometimes rather dramatic failures. SpaceX recently learned this the hard way after one of its Falcon 9 rockets exploded on launch pad during a routine fuelling back in September 2016. All flights were grounded for more than four months as they investigated what went wrong. To date, SpaceX are only two successful flights post this explosion (14 January and 19 February), and they’ve never flown a human into space before.

So it seems more than a tad ambitious to announce a tourist trip to the Moon by the end of 2018. And that’s not even considering the other big list of firsts that SpaceX will need to complete to perfection between now and then. All of the key hardware for a trip to the Moon is as yet unflown, including the first flight of SpaceX’s powerful new rocket, Falcon Heavy, the first flight of the crew-carrying capsule, Crew Dragon, and the first SpaceX flight to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (a duty which NASA gently reminded us last week is part of SpaceX’s contract with NASA.

Being realistic, I believe SpaceX will send humans on a trip around the Moon, but not on the extremely ambitious timescale they’ve just announced. There are just too many firsts in between.

NASA

NASA
Artist concept of NASA's Space Launch System. Credit: NASA
NASA
Orion capsule (artist's impression). Credit: NASA

NASA has been focused on its Journey To Mars ever since Obama shifted priorities away from a Bush-era return to the Moon. But sending humans to Mars will inevitably include a return to the Moon along the way, as it’s the natural base from which to gather resources and learn more about deep-space, long-term habitability.

To that end, NASA has been developing its own new heavy-lifting rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and crew capsule, Orion. As it stands currently, the plan is to launch SLS and Orion on a first, unmanned flight in 2018, followed by a first manned flight in 2021 that would attempt the much trickier mission of placing humans into lunar orbit, compared with SpaceX’s flyby.

But in the last few weeks, perhaps pressured by the Trump administration, NASA has begun to study whether it would be feasible and safe to fly humans on the first flight of SLS and Orion, in an orbit around the Moon, as early as 2019.

If given the green light, that seems awfully close to SpaceX’s own late-2018 timeline. So will NASA or SpaceX be the first to return humans to the Moon?

For the same reasons that I believe SpaceX’s timeline will shift right, I think NASA will stick with its 2021 plan for manned flight around the Moon. There is a lot of new hardware to test, and wisdom dictates that the first flight shouldn’t be manned.

So for humans flying around the Moon, I’d set the calendar to 2020-2021 for both SpaceX and NASA, barring any major setbacks.

What about footprints on the Moon again?

It’s all well and good to send humans on a trip around the Moon, but what about actually landing on the Moon again? It’s not at all clear that either SpaceX or NASA will race to put humans on the Moon again. They have less to gain from such a flag-planting exercise – NASA of course has been there before and SpaceX is driven by commercial markets. They’ll want to test the demand for the far-less-costly lunar flyby trip first. Landing on the Moon is an order of magnitude harder than just flying around it and the costs involved might price out even the wealthiest of space tourists.

NASA will return humans to the Moon before pushing on to Mars – it’s the logical base to develop. But I expect this will be done incrementally with international collaboration, much like the building of the International Space Station. The European Space Agency has outlined its ambitions of a Moon Village, and of course, Russia has never been to the Moon.

I expect in the 2030s we’ll start to see the development of a permanent moon base for living, working, and research, with large international collaboration, perhaps aided by Blue Origin’s promise of Amazon-like delivery of cargo to the Moon.

But the 2030s are still a long way off. Is there anyone else who could put a human on the Moon before then?

China

China
China's Long March rocket on 10 October 2016. Credit: Reuters.
China
Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences / China National Space Administration

Perhaps China. China’s strides in space have occurred at a remarkable pace, especially given the lack of a Cold War-like incentive. It was only in 2003 when China sent its first astronaut into space. By 2007, China had placed a spacecraft, Chang’e-1, into orbit around the Moon and by 2013 it had landed a rover called Yutu on the Moon, becoming the third country to do so. Meanwhile China launched its first and second manned space stations, Tiangong 1 and 2, in 2011 and 2016, with plans for a permanent space station in orbit by the early 2020s.

Space exploration is still a very geopolitical tactic for China, more so than for the United States, Russia, or Europe. Triumphs in space reflect technological and military strengths back on Earth, and this is something that China is always keen to remind the rest of the world, especially its neighbours India, Japan, and South Korea, each with their own developing space sector.

Looking ahead, China seems to be just as ambitious. The China National Space Administration recently outlined its five-year space plan which includes landing a 2018 rover on the far side of the Moon, something that no other country has ever done before. Two years later, in 2020, China will attempt to become only the second country after the United States to successfully land a rover on Mars. These feats will place China firmly among the world leaders in space exploration.

Will China send humans to the Moon? Last year a senior Chinese space official said that China plans to land humans on the Moon by 2036. Given their breakneck progress in space exploration over the past ten years and their geopolitical desire to prove their strength to the world, China may well be the first group to return humans to the Moon. If so you can bet the rest of the world will sit up and take note.

In summary, we probably will see humans fly around the Moon over the next few years, but perhaps not as early as 2018 given the challenges that SpaceX faces. And it remains a toss-up whether NASA or SpaceX will be the first to return humans to the Moon. Either way, neither are likely to prioritise a Moon landing in the way that China might.

So watch this space! The way we are accessing space beyond low-Earth orbit seems poised to change dramatically.

About the author: Dr Tamela Maciel is the Space Communications Manager at the National Space Centre.