Humans have not set foot on the moon since 1972, when the last Apollo mission came back to Earth. That could all change in the coming years, however, as entities like the European Space Agency (ESA) are preparing not just to return, but to build a permanent base on the surface.
ESA is right now planning a lunar mission campaign, which would see us send robots to the moon in the 2020s in preparation for human missions. Dr David Parker, the director of human and robotic exploration at ESA, talked Horizon through what this might involve if funding is approved at the ESA Council Meeting in December 2019.
Why do we want to go back to the moon?
‘It’s a museum of 4.5 billion years of solar system history. It’s been sat there soaking up the history of our solar system, almost literally, with material coming from the sun but also interplanetary space. With the Apollo missions we only basically went to the museum gift shop, grabbed a few things and came back again, and then abandoned it for 50 years. Now we are entering a second era of lunar exploration. If we want to really explore the moon, we need to be there for weeks and months at a time.’
How are we going to do that?
‘Our plan to go back to the moon is a combination of humans and robots. One step is sending robotic explorers as our scouts and our reconnaissance probes to gather information, and then to go back with humans we need to do it in a sustainable way. We want to go step by step and make it affordable.’
'(The moon is) a museum of 4.5 billion years of solar system history.'
David Parker, head of human and robotic exploration, European Space Agency
What human missions might that entail?
‘Europe is building the service module (for NASA’s Orion spacecraft), which provides the electrical power, the propulsion, and it will also carry the water and oxygen needed to the astronauts. It’s the first time Europe has built a human-rated vehicle – designed to work with humans in deep space exploration. That will fly uncrewed at the end of 2020, and we’re already deep into building the second service module that will be used to carry NASA astronauts on a mission around the moon in about 2022.’
What will happen after that?
‘We intend to be taking the building blocks of a thing called the lunar gateway (a space station being built in near-lunar space in the 2020s). It’ll be a place that we can command robots on the surface of the moon, and when we go back with humans it’ll be a kind of reusable command module, and a safe haven the astronauts can return to safely. We want Europe to be a part of that. This is something we are going to put to our ministers when they meet for the (ESA) ministerial meeting at the end of 2019 in Seville in Spain.’
What’s happening with the robotic missions?
‘We are working with our Russian partner, Roscosmos, on a set of robotic missions to the moon, to assess the presence of water as a step towards understanding whether we can use the resources of the moon in the future to support sustainable exploration.’
Is the final goal to be living and working on the moon?
‘The goal is to establish whether it makes sense to have a permanent lunar base. We want to assess where you would put a permanent human lunar base, what the feasibility would be, and in particular whether we can use the resources of the moon to sustain the astronauts.’
We’ve heard promises like this before. What’s different this time?
‘With the US stepping out to build the pieces of the architecture – the Space Launch System vehicle, the Orion crew vehicle and the gateway – and offering to do this with international partners like ESA, the Canadians, the Russians and the Japanese, we have a chance to make a sustainable and affordable programme. It feels like this is the time for it to actually happen.’
Do you see China as a collaborator or a competitor?
‘I think it’ll be both. The Chang’e 4 lander, which is on the far side of the moon, is carrying several European scientific instruments. Likewise the most recent NASA Mars probe, InSight, all the science aboard is European. So cooperation is in European DNA. I see us cooperating with the Chinese.’
Will the private sector play a big part?
‘Of course. Every euro I get, 90% of that is going to industry and commerce already. So everything we do is with the commercial sector. There’s an opportunity for all sorts of different companies to get involved.’
If the lunar campaign is approved, what would we see happen in 2020?
‘We’d move from doing studies, which is where we are at the moment spending a few tens of millions of euros, to hundreds of millions and start actually building hardware, cutting metal, and getting on with it.’
What does space exploration mean for the average person in Europe?
‘Maybe more than they might imagine. Exploration delivers scientific information, so new knowledge about the solar system and our place in it. But in order to do that we’re innovators in technology, and that technology comes back to Earth. And then the thing about exploration, everything we do is an international cooperation. Even in difficult political times the space station partnership continues. I think that’s a really positive message of hope in the future. And then for the next generation, we need young people in Europe to be engaged in science and technology. So this is all real value back here on Earth.’
Moon landings - the story so far
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