When will humans return to the moon and who might they be? Forbes put that question to Dr. Paul Spudis, a lunar and planetary geologist and the author of the upcoming book The Value of the Moon, in a Thursday story. Spudis suggested that a return to the moon might take place in the 2020s and that the next footprints in the lunar soil will likely be Chinese.
The reason for Spudis’ bleak assessment, from the point of view of the United States and other western countries, is the decision six years ago by President Barack Obama to bypass the moon, sending astronauts first to an Earth-approaching asteroid and then to Mars. A number of studies, one by a think tank called Next-Gen Space and the other by MIT, have concluded that making the moon a no-go zone for American astronauts was folly, especially considering the Mars goal. Lunar water and the use of the moon as a venue to practice living on Mars would actually make the Journey to Mars cheaper and simpler to conduct.
Why Mars directly instead of the moon directly? Spudis suggests that something nefarious may be going on. The Mars goal is so far in the future that it keeps the space community pacified even if it is never achieved. The moon could be accomplished in just a few years, meaning that the effort would have to show near-term results.
Could the United States or an American-led coalition that includes allied space agencies and private companies beat China back to the moon? Perhaps, suggests Spudis.
“He says one of the first orders of business would be to set up an operational surface radio beacon to guide robotic craft down from lunar orbit. ‘A repeating, precision pulse [via] any unused VHF or UHF frequency with an estimated 100-kilometer range would do,’ said Spudis.
“This would mark one of the first steps toward building what Spudis terms a cislunar transcontinental railroad consisting of an Earth to LEO transport, ‘multiple staging nodes, fuel depots, transit spacecraft, landers, and the lunar outpost.’
“For the first time, Spudis writes, this would allow access to GEO communications satellites and would allow us to build satellite networks that could provide uninterrupted telecommunications coverage over an entire hemisphere with ‘enough bandwidth to accommodate thousands of channels of high-definition video, internet traffic, and personal messaging.’
“Spudis writes that ‘remotely operated robotic machines assemble this entire complex before people arrive,’ which, in turn, would support a crew of four for biannual lunar visits lasting several weeks at a time.
“By the end of the nominal program, he writes, the U.S. would have an operating outpost that produces 150 tons of water per year, which time and again he notes is the most valuable commodity in space.’”
The timeframe is somewhat more pessimistic than the plan being bandied about in the media that suggests that the first moon boots could be on the lunar soil in five to seven years for just $10 billion. Spudis proposes a 16-year schedule and an $88 billion price tag between the order to proceed to the first human-tended base. He envisions the first human return to take place in 2028.
Interest in the moon seems to be on the rise now that President Barack Obama is on his way out and a new president could offer a course correction. The Journey to Mars has a conspicuous lack of detail between the first human flight of the Orion in the early 2020s and the first footsteps on Mars in the late 2030s. A return to the moon, along the lines Spudis suggests, might just be what is needed to create a deep space exploration program that is at once realistic, exciting, and productive.