WHITTINGTON: India And China Dominate The New Moon Race

Mark Whittington Contributor
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India recently announced that it will launch its Chandrayaan-2 lunar mission in mid-July. If all goes well, after a 45-day journey, the probe will enter lunar orbit. On Sept. 6, the Vikram lunar lander will detach and attempt a landing at the moon’s south pole. If it succeeds, the Pragyan rover will roll out onto the lunar surface. The Indian moon shot is one of the most complex ever attempted by an uncrewed mission. The three parts of the Chandrayaan-2 will take images and conduct scientific observations on the Earth’s nearest neighbor.

Thus far, the only country to land on the moon in the 21st century has been China, with its Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4 lunar landers. A private Israeli group attempted a lunar landing with its Beeresheet robotic probe, but it crashed on impact. The Israelis are undertaking a second attempt with the Beresheet-2 lander.

The United States, which first landed men on the moon, is conspicuously absent from this flurry of lunar expeditions. That state of affairs, in due course, is about to change. As part of President Trump’s back to the moon initiative, recently named Project Artemis after the Greek goddess of the moon and sister of Apollo, NASA is partnering with a group of commercial companies to develop lunar landers to send on missions to the moon.

These landers range from smaller versions being developed by companies such as Moon Express and Astrobotic — under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program — to Blue Moon, a huge lunar lander recently unveiled by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. The big rocket that SpaceX is developing in south Texas could be used for a moon landing, it is rumored.

If Congress provides funds and NASA and its commercial partners perform, the “next man and the first woman” are scheduled to walk on the moon in 2024, the first people to do so since December 1972.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing, the first manned mission to the moon. More than likely the United States will not be able to celebrate that anniversary by landing even a small robot on the lunar surface. So far, the 21st century scramble for the moon has been dominated by foreign countries.

Like many embarrassments of the 21st century, the U.S.’s inability to land anything on the moon can be laid squarely at the feet of former President Obama. In 2010, Obama cancelled the last program to send American astronauts to the moon, claiming costs, but more likely because Constellation, as it was called, was proposed by President George W. Bush, and it smacked too much of American exceptionalism, a concept he detested to his marrow.

When an outcry erupted over what many considered an abrupt and high-handed move, Obama traveled to the Kennedy Space Center and offered his excuses, taking Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin in tow as a political prop.

“Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the moon first, as previously planned” Obama said at the time. “But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do.”

Obama instead offered a kind of Potemkin space program that included bringing a piece of an asteroid to lunar orbit and landing on Mars directly. The asteroid mission was opposed by the small bodies (asteroids and comets) scientific community. MIT conducted a study that concluded that going to Mars would be a lot easier if the moon’s water were to be mined and refined into rocket fuel.

Nine years later, Buzz Aldrin is firmly behind going back to the moon before going to Mars, having learned the peril of being used by Barack Obama. Lori Garver, who as Deputy Administrator of NASA is said to be the architect of the abandonment of the moon under Obama, was present at the Bezos Blue Moon announcement, lending tacit support for returning to the moon. What a difference nine years makes.

Because of Obama’s ill-considered decision, America is starting from behind in the new race for the moon, just as it did during Apollo. However, if America does not get distracted again, it will prevail once again, proving it still has what it takes to lead the world out to the universe.

Mark Whittington (@MarkWhittington) is the author of Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? and The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He also operates his own blog, Curmudgeons Corner. 

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.