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Over the Moon about the Moon

Participants at the announcement of The Moon Race during the International Astronautical Congress hold up a giant inflatable Moon to celebrate the start of a competition whose details have yet to be defined. (credit: The Moon Race)

The star of the recent International Astronautical Congress (IAC), held early this month in Bremen, Germany, was the Moon. Specifically, one about two meters across.

That inflatable model of the Moon spent most of its time in the conference’s exhibit hall, serving as a backdrop for innumerable photos from conference attendees. It was, though, on the move from time to time, showing up at different events at the conference.

Then there were the lunar rovers form various companies and organizations, some of which were simply models on display while others were moving about the exhibit hall—much to the delight of some but the consternation of others, who found themselves unexpectedly having to negotiate around not just crowds of people but robots as well.

“I think you can’t walk through the exhibit hall and not bump into a lunar rover, which is good to see, but also a cautionary tale,” quipped Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, at the start of a panel discussion about lunar exploration at the conference. “Watch out for them. They are everywhere.”

Inflatable Moons and lunar rovers aside, it was hard to escape the emphasis on the Moon at the conference, in keynotes and panel sessions throughout the five-day conference. “This week has been an incredible week here at the IAC,” said Giuseppe Reibaldi, president of the Moon Village Association, in one of the final panel sessions of the conference. “We have seen nearly every day announcements about Moon activities and Moon initiatives.”

It was clear at the IAC that there is a near unanimity among space agencies and companies about the desire to return to the Moon with humans in the near term—within a decade or so—and perform other human and robotic activities there before pursuing visions of Mars exploration or other activities beyond cislunar space.

One key factor was that NASA was finally, and fully, on board with a human return to the Moon. After years of the “Journey to Mars” and other efforts that largely bypassed the Moon, the agency now has explicit direction, in the form of Space Policy Directive 1 signed by President Trump last December, to return humans to the Moon while maintaining a long-term, if vague, vision of human missions to Mars.

“My charge from the President is to go back to the Moon, but to do it differently than we did in the 1960s and the 1970s,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine during the IAC’s traditional “heads of agencies” panel at the beginning of the conference. That difference, he said, will involve more cooperation with other national space agencies who are also interested in lunar exploration. “We cannot do what we do without the support of our international partners.”

That seems to suit most potential international partners fine, who have expressed an interest in cooperating with the US on its lunar exploration plans. A number of both traditional and non-traditional partners, from ESA and JAXA to the brand-new Australian Space Agency, said they’re angling for ways to find a role on the Gateway.

Another factor is that, at this year’s IAC, advocates of Mars exploration were harder to find. The last two years, Elon Musk gave keynotes about his evolving approach to sending humans to Mars, involving what is now officially known as the Big Falcon Rocket. This, year, though, he stayed home, having given his update on the changes to BFR at a press conference last month at SpaceX headquarters. (This was likely much to the relief of conference organizers and many other attendees, given how disruptive those speeches were on the conference two years ago in Mexico and last year in Australia.)

At that same IAC in Mexico two years ago, Lockheed Martin offered its own vision for human missions to Mars through its “Mars Base Camp” concept, which the company updated at last year’s IAC. The company was back with another presentation in Bremen, but this time their focus was largely on the Moon.

At their presentation, they discussed a new reusable lunar lander concept they had developed. The massive lander—62 metric tons when fully fueled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen—could land four astronauts on the surface for two-week stays, making use of many of the technologies the company has developed for the Orion spacecraft.

That lander was adapted from designs the company previously developed for Mars exploration, without the need for elements like an aeroshell needed for landing on Mars. “All the things we’re working on today are necessary to enable the future, this next phase, which is putting humans on the surface of the Moon,” said Tim Cichan, space exploration architect at Lockheed Martin, during the presentation. “This time, the exploration campaign is going to be one of sustainable, long-term exploration of the Moon.”

The company sees the lander as ferrying astronauts to and from the Gateway in orbit around the Moon, making use of a separate propellant depot to refuel between sorties to the lunar surface. That depot could eventually make use of lunar water ice, although it initially may generate propellants from water delivered to lunar orbit from the Earth.

The Gateway itself, though, is still taking shape. While designs of the complex have evolved to become more complex, no decisions have been made about which countries will contribute which elements—even as some space agencies, like ESA, are commissioning studies with industry on how to develop specific modules.

“There’s a process we’re going through right now,” Bridenstine said at a press conference after the heads-of-agencies panel. “We’re formulating what the architecture will look like, and then we’re looking at each of the space agencies and their capabilities, and we’ll be incorporating those capabilities into the architecture.” He didn’t indicate how long that formulation process takes.

That uncertainty extends to other lunar initiatives as well. One of the press conferences during the IAC was for an announcement on something called “The Moon Race,” with few details provided to the media in advance. The event itself featured a large crowd of lunar exploration enthusiasts, dwarfing the small number of reporters present. That inflatable Moon made an appearance as well, put up on stage (with the southern hemisphere up, one lunar scientist noted.) In attendance were Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin, and Nicolas Chamussy, executive vice president for space systems at Airbus.

And what was announced? Well, that was rather vague. The Moon Race, as the name suggests, is intended to be a competition related to lunar exploration, but it is not a successor to the Google Lunar X PRIZE that ended earlier this year without a winner, or even something in the same vein.

Instead, the young professionals who developed the competition, with the support of Airbus, want to stimulate technologies to enable future lunar exploration that could be built and, ultimately, flown and tested on the Moon. But the specific rules for the competition have yet to be created, and The Moon Race won’t be accepting applications from potential competitors until some time next year. And the organizers would say nothing about prize purses or other issues regarding funding for the competition.

That didn’t stop, though, a celebratory atmosphere at the event, including the organizers and guests posing with that inflatable Moon, lifted above their heads in the fortunately high-ceilinged hall. At one point the Moon bounced above some of the people there, like an oversized beach ball bouncing through the bleachers of a ballpark on a summer afternoon.

Amid all that, Blue Origin’s Smith was asked what role his company—which has its own lunar ambitions—would play in The Moon Race. He responded that the company hadn’t made any decisions yet about it. “We just want to be a part of anything that gets us back to the Moon,” he said. (Later during IAC, Blue Origin announced it had signed a letter of intent with German aerospace company OHB to study “a future Blue Moon mission to the lunar surface,” but again with few specifics about the potential partnership.)

A return to the Moon would also appear to provide new momentum for the concept of the “Moon Village” promoted for years by Jan Wörner, director general of ESA. The idea of Moon Village, as Wörner reminded people at IAC, is about a broad concept for partnerships among agencies and companies in lunar exploration, and not a literal village of people living on the Moon.

“Moon Village is not the colonization of the Moon,” he said at a press conference during the IAC. “I’m not looking to build some houses, a church, a cinema. I don’t want to move people away from the Earth to live on the Moon, or Mars, because the Earth is still the best place to live in the universe.”

However, during the panel at the end of the IAC that discussed the “first results from the drawing board” on creating the Moon Village concept, some people were focused on that kind of architectural planning that Wörner was opposed to. Yoshifumi Inatani of the Japanese space agency JAXA talked about developing the architecture for the Moon Village, with a goal of a facility in the second half of the century hosting a “reasonable” number of people.

“In order to take care of the architecture, we need a definition of Moon Village,” he said. “But this definition is not fixed yet.” Given the differences between Wörner’s high-level concept and Inatani’s more literal interpretation, it’s obvious that definition is not fixed yet.

It’s clear that there’s a lot of enthusiasm for lunar exploration, with robots and with people, by governments and by companies. What’s less clear, though, is how that enthusiasm will get translated into specific plans and programs, projects and profits. There is, of course, time to do that in the months and years to come, but celebrating too much too soon runs the risk of, well, deflating that interest in the Moon when things don’t develop as rapidly as some hope.


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