by James Patrick Kelly
As I type this in the fall of 2018, the Neil Armstrong http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_Armstrong biopic, The First Man www.firstman.com, is subsiding in its fourth week of release. As impressive as this loud and lurching movie is, I must admit that I find Ryan Gosling www.knowyourmeme.com/memes/people/ryan-gosling more convincing as a meme than an actor. While many critics were pleased, its earnings proved a mild disappointment, in part because it had the misfortune to crash into the third weepy remake of A Star Is Born and in part because of its frosty take on one of America’s space heroes.
The moment in The First Man that has stuck with me did not involve Neil Armstrong. It’s a fleeting scene in which protesting hippies gather on Apollo 11 launch day with Launch Pad 39A in the distance. 1968 was, after all, a vintage year for demonstrations. We watch as jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron www.gilscottheron.net chants an angry poem about his country’s misguided priorities. The poet’s sister Nell is suffering from a rat bite, he says, and her arms begin to swell. He thinks about the doctor bill and how in a decade he’ll be paying it still. The life he aspires to lead is ever out of his reach. Between each line comes the refrain that gives the poem its stinging title, “But Whitey on the Moon www.youtube.com/watch?v=goh2x_G0ct4.”
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Half a century has passed since Armstrong uttered his immortal—if garbled—line, most commonly quoted as “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Of course, as Armstrong repeatedly pointed out, what he actually said was “That’s one small step for a man.” www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-neil-armstrong-one-small-step-for-a-man-20150605-story.html. A dozen men walked on the Moon in the three years after Apollo 11, but since then there have been no human boots on that ground.
There’s been much editorial hand-wringing over this. Astronauts explain why nobody has visited the moon in more than 45 years www.businessinsider.com/moon-missions-why-astronauts-have-not-returned-2018-7 runs through the familiar litany of politics and budget, project management and launch vehicle technology. In 2007 the tech angels at the X Prize Foundation www.xprize.org even offered a twenty million dollar prize to jump start efforts to mount a return. Several teams competed but failed to make their deadlines, and so the prize ran out in 2019. Why getting back to the moon is so damn hard www.technologyreview.com/s/610720/why-getting-back-to-the-moon-is-so-damn-hard discusses their travails and successes. However, now that we have a clutch of multi-billionaires funding their own private space programs and national space agencies flexing their technological muscles, new missions appear to be in the offing.
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The most ambitious and successful of these to date is China’s Chang’e program www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/2164255/chinas-change-moon-missions-and-how-it-achieved-its-first-moon, named for the Chinese goddess of the Moon. It began in 2007 with the stated goal of landing Chinese astronauts on the Moon by 2036. The successful Chang’e 1 and 2 satellites achieved lunar orbits and conducted surveys that resulted in high pixel 3D maps to aid in future landings. An actual landing came in 2013 when Chang’e 3 http://spaceflight101.com/change/category/change-3 became the first craft to revisit the lunar surface in thirty-seven years, deploying the rover Yutu (in English, Jade Rabbit). Chang’e 4 is slated to launch another rover mission on the far side of the Moon in December 2019. The next major advance could come later in 2020, when the Chang’e 5 www.spaceflight101.com/change/change-5-test-mission mission will land, retrieve a two kg sample of lunar regolith, and return it to earth. But despite their many robotic successes, the Chinese are hampered by the lack of a capable launch vehicle. As this article points out, China and the US are both shooting for the moon www.phys.org/news/2017-11-china-moon-dont-space.html, China would need to make multiple launches of its undersized Long March booster to get astronauts safely to the Moon and back.
While both Russia www.ruaviation.com/news/2018/4/17/11231/?h and India https://asgardia.space/en/news/asgardia-space-news-india-to-launch-its-second-lunar-mission-in-january-with-chandrayaan-2 have scheduled robotic lunar lander missions for 2019, both countries’ space programs have experienced delays and postponements in recent years. Meanwhile the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has announced plans http://thediplomat.com/2018/09/japan-heads-for-the-moon to put a manned spacecraft on the Moon by 2030, but their unmanned advance probe for that mission isn’t scheduled to launch until 2021. Then there’s ispace http://ispace-inc.com, a private Japanese robotics company that had been competing for the now-withdrawn X Prize, and has signed an agreement with SpaceX www.spacex.com to deliver two payloads to the Moon. A similar deal has been cut with SpaceX by the Israeli Spaceil team www.spaceil.com, another X Prize finalist.
Orion www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/orion/index.html is a joint NASA www.nasa.gov and European Space Agency (ESA) www.esa.int/ESA program to develop an interplanetary spacecraft capable of delivering large payloads not only to the Moon but eventually to Mars and the asteroid belt as well. NASA has let contracts to build the command module of this ship, while the ESA is contributing the service module. Exploration Mission-1 www.nasa.gov/content/exploration-mission-1 will be the first integrated test of the various Orion components: the two modules and the controversial, single-use Space Launch System (SLS) booster www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/sls/index.html. Originally scheduled for late 2019, current thinking is that EM1 might not launch until mid-2020—or later. This will be a critical flight test of the un-crewed Orion spacecraft, which will spend about three weeks in space and six days in retrograde orbit around the Moon. While the SLS is exactly the kind of powerful rocket that China lacks, it has been plagued by delays and cost overruns; a recent report by NASA’s Inspector General https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/10/theres-a-new-report-on-sls-rocket-management-and-its-pretty-brutal/ was scathingly critical of NASA and its contractors on this project.
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But if NASA can’t get us to the Moon anytime soon, maybe Elon Musk can. You may have heard that SpaceX has sold a ticket to the Moon www.space.com/41854-spacex-unveils-1st-private-moon-flight-passenger.html to the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-45557840. The cost has not been disclosed, although during the announcement Maezawa hinted that he might contribute 5 percent of the cost of developing the new, reusable, super-heavy-lift spacecraft necessary to make the trip. This would be the indelicately named BFR https://www.space.com/38393-spacex-bfr-mars-colony-rocket-name.html, which Musk estimates will cost some five billion dollars to build. Thus his “ticket” may have set Maezawa back as much as $250 million. But, savvy traveler that he was, he managed to get a group rate! He has announced that he’s bringing six to eight artists with him https://www.space.com/41857-dearmoon-spacex-epic-lunar-art-project.html on his circumlunar jaunt. You can read all about it at his Dear Moon https://dearmoon.earth website. “A painter, musician, film director, fashion designer . . . Some of Earth’s greatest talents will board a spacecraft and be inspired in a way they have never been before.” Wait, no SF writer? This artist residency/flyby mission could happen as soon as 2023, thus stealing a march on the other, less whimsical, efforts discussed above.
The BFR’s first suborbital test is scheduled for 2019. The design includes a reusable booster component, the BFB, and a ship component, the BFS. There will be three classes of the BFS, a long-duration passenger ship, a tanker ship for fueling interplanetary missions, and a satellite delivery cargo ship, which will help pay the freight. The final iteration of the BFR is expected to carry a 150-ton payload, while the non-reusuable SLS will deliver 140-ton payloads. Both of these spaceships are headed for the Moon in the near future, although that’s not the destination they’re being designed for.
According to NASA’s 2017 Space Policy Directive 1 www.nasa.gov/press-release/new-space-policy-directive-calls-for-human-expansion-across-solar-system, “Beginning with missions beyond low-Earth orbit, the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.” President Trump’s emphasis on human, as opposed to robotic, exploration of space is a change in policy from the Obama administration, which shelved the over-budget and behind-schedule Constellation Program http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constellation_program in 2009. Constellation, a holdover from the Bush era, was heavily invested in manned space exploration, with maintaining the International Space Station and putting humans on the Moon no later than 2020 as priorities. Now the Moon is seen as a stepping-stone to Mars.
Elon Musk has made no secret about his ambitions in space. He’s going to Mars ASAP. You can download SpaceX’s Making Life Multiplanetary www.spacex.com/sites/spacex/files/making_life_multiplanetary-2017.pdf, which is part slick brochure for the BFR and part roadmap to our space future. And here’s the current project timeline, Elon Musk says SpaceX is on track to launch people to Mars within 6 years www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-spacex-mars-plan-timeline-2018-10#2018-build-a-launch-support-facility-in-boca-chica-a-town-near-brownsville-texas-2.
Will any of this actually happen, and, if so, when? Beats me! Plans come and go; the Moon remains.
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Why send people to the Moon in the first place? In the sixties, the Apollo program was driven by nationalism. Turned out that wasn’t particularly compelling given the cost, so we stopped going. Maybe our new goal is to advance science? But the need to advance our knowledge of the Moon was no less telling in 1970 or 2000 than it is now. Perhaps the reason is that humanity must find our place in the universe and that requires we start with the Moon. Science fiction readers in particular may feel that it’s our destiny as a species to answer some quasi-mystical call “to boldly go” to the frontier, wherever we perceive it. Or else there’s Hawking’s Basket. Stephen Hawking famously said www.space.com/8924-stephen-hawking-humanity-won-survive-leaving-earth.html, “The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let’s hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load.” Or maybe we’re still in thrall to JFK’s bravado. John F. Kennedy kicked off the race http://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm to the Moon in 1962 with this curious call to action: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Really, Mr. President? There are many important things that are hard. Why choose this one?
Perhaps someday in the future the citizens of Luna City will be able to offer an explanation.But will it be in Chinese, Hindustani, Russian—or English?
Copyright © 2019 James Patrick Kelly