Everyone Wants a Piece of the Moon

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Written By Pinang Driod

For the past few days, mission control in Houston has been talking to the moon. It’s a throwback to an earlier space age, with a few tweaks. Mission control is not NASA, but a private American company called Intuitive Machines, sending instructions to an uncrewed lander about the size of a telephone booth. The spacecraft made a nail-biting descent to the lunar surface on Thursday, with a last-minute software patch to make up for malfunctioning navigation sensors. One of the spacecraft’s legs snagged the surface and the whole thing tipped over, landing on its side. But still: It was the first time an American spacecraft had landed on the moon in more than 50 years.

The mission is the latest event in what has quickly become the busiest decade in lunar exploration since the 1960s. Government agencies and private companies in the United States, China, India, Japan, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates have all dispatched lunar landers in the past five years, with varying degrees of success. Many more missions, both uncrewed and crewed, are in the works. The U.S., the only country so far that has set people on the moon, aims to repeat the feat as early as 2026, and then start building a sustained presence on the surface.

All of this activity is driving humankind to a new precipice. The present flurry of moon missions is poised to define the next 50 years of human space travel. In the 1970s, after the triumph of the moon landings, NASA and the Soviet Union turned away from the moon, focusing instead on building space shuttles and stations. But the state of lunar exploration has changed dramatically since Apollo. And this time, instead of swinging back to Earth once again, humankind has an opportunity to launch itself deeper into the solar system, establishing us even more as a spacefaring, possibly interplanetary, species.

Several of the new missions—like Apollo before them—are run by national governments, including India’s and China’s. “The moon is not exactly the milestone that it would have been 50 years ago, but it does signify a level of capability on particular aspiring space powers,” John Logsdon, a space historian and founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told me. Whereas the Cold War race involved two mighty competitors, the track is now full of both established and emergent space powers, some working together to explore the moon.

The space arena is also full of private aerospace companies—and this is the key difference between our modern moon fixation and the original edition. Firms from Israel and Japan have dispatched spacecraft to the moon, and Intuitive Machines is one of 14 firms that NASA has contracted to deliver various lunar payloads in the coming years. Its lander rode into space on a rocket built by SpaceX, which launches all kinds of payloads at a blistering cadence, serving as Uber for space. “Even 10 to 15 years ago, those kinds of launch opportunities were extremely rare,” Asif Siddiqi, a space historian and history professor at Fordham University, told me. SpaceX is also responsible for building the spacecraft that will deliver NASA astronauts to the lunar surface in 2026 through the Artemis program, named for Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology.

The bulk of moon-landing attempts over the past five years have ended in bits and pieces. That’s to be expected: The majority of the entities making these attempts—whether Japan’s national space agency or a NASA contractor—are doing so for the first time. Yes, technology has come a long way since Apollo, but “we have new technology available to us that we’ve never tested in this kind of environment,” Sue Lederer, the lead project scientist on NASA’s program for commercial moon missions, told me. A crash landing is certainly a disappointing setback, but if and when a given team is ready to try again, there are plenty of rides to space available, thanks to companies like SpaceX. The attempts will just keep coming. “Barring any unforeseen global catastrophe, I don’t see that stopping,” Siddiqi said.

Plus, there’s a new motivation fueling private moon missions today: ice, hints of which scientists detected in the 1990s. The Intuitive Machines lander touched down near the moon’s south pole, a region of shadowy craters that might harbor water ice. Future explorers could melt that water and run it through life-support systems, or break out its hydrogen and oxygen to produce rocket fuel—the kind of infrastructure you’d need to support a lunar economy. Mining the moon for water is still an abstract idea; for one thing, science instruments have yet to determine how icy the lunar south pole actually is. Upcoming missions may find little of economic value, Logsdon said. Or they could kick off a full-blown lunar rush.

So far, our modern moon rush isn’t as glitzy as its predecessor. Don’t get me wrong: I love the moon. Without it, nothing you and I treasure on this Earth would exist. Still, any Apollo-like program in this day and age is bound to invoke a “been there, done that” response, says Logsdon, who witnessed the launch of Apollo 11 in person in 1969. Surveys show that Americans largely believe that NASA should focus more on climate change and monitoring potentially hazardous asteroids. A 21st-century moon landing by astronauts, with the first woman and first person of color, will certainly be front-page news. But unlike Apollo 11, an Artemis landing is “not going to lead to ticker-tape parades through the streets of Manhattan,” Logsdon said.

Space travel is now merely the mark of an advanced civilization, even when some of its members wish that the richest among them spent less time eying the heavens and more time focused on earthly matters instead. And if you’ve got to go somewhere, the moon is a good choice. Some of the space community considers the moon to be a proving ground for human missions to Mars—a giant leap that is much more likely to capture our collective attention. A Mars mission is an enormous challenge, and will be for a long time. But the moon is right there. Why wouldn’t we go?

This decade will be pivotal for our future in space, but it’s too early to say exactly where we’ll be in 10 years’ time. Space exploration is always at the mercy of shifting budgets and political priorities. If you’d asked experts riding the high of the first moon landing about America’s next leap, Siddiqi told me, they would have said that astronauts would be on Mars in the 1980s; instead, humans have stayed within Earth’s orbit. The Artemis program, for its part, has struggled with technical and budget problems, but it has a certain momentum, and the success of the newest lander, a precursor to sending people, has only added to it.

Although he knows that historians can get such predictions wrong, Siddiqi doesn’t think the world will slip into another lunar lull. “We’re in a very different stage of our interaction with space,” he said. In the years since Apollo, humankind has dispatched robots across the solar system, built gigantic space telescopes, and become comfortable living in the weightlessness of the International Space Station. Humans themselves have not traveled beyond the moon, but with the current lunar frenzy, our future as an off-world species feels more within reach than ever before.

Marina Koren is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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