“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Those famous words from astronaut Neil Armstrong as he set foot on the surface of the moon were a signal to the entire world that moon travel was indeed a reality. After Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the lunar module from Apollo 11 and made it to the moon and back in 1969, all people wanted to do is go back again!
Countries were on a race to make it back to the moon. The last controlled moon landing was a sample-return mission back in 1976 with the Soviet Luna 24. So where is the space race to the Moon now?
NASA’s changing role in the space race
Back when Kennedy made his famous Moon landing speech, things were quite different in the United States. The Apollo space program was a federal government priority, with $25 billion then (worth around $100 billion today) being invested. NASA was heavily funded, getting 4.4% of the federal budget. NASA receives just a small fraction of that today, as priorities have changed. With the Soviet Union broken up there’s no single opponent for NASA’s space program. China, India, Japan, and the European Space Agency, as well as NASA, have sent probes, rovers, and orbiters to the moon. What has changed in recent times though, is the emergence of private players as strong contenders.
It’s now cheaper to launch missions
A decade ago, things were really heating up in the race to the moon. With a $30 million Google Lunar X Prize announced by the Silicon Valley giant, Jeff Bezos’ foray into outer space with his spaceflight company Blue Origin, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX initiatives are underway. These include a private launch service that comes at a fraction of the cost of what government agencies have to offer, and commercial trips to the moon seemed like they would be an option in the near future.
Google drops out, but that doesn’t deter others
The ambitious Google Lunar X Prize announced in 2007 to encourage commercial spaceflight and exploration was left unclaimed, as shortlisted teams concluded that no one would meet the March 31, 2018 launch deadline. They were attempting to create a robotic spacecraft that could make a moon landing, move 500 meters and send back high definition photos and video to Earth. However, the teams from the US, Israel, and Japan intend to carry on nonetheless.
With all this action on the private front, government agencies have a renewed interest in the moon as well. NASA may get the backing to build a space station in lunar orbit in the 2020s, and China has plans to send a probe to the dark side of the moon.
The question now is: will other players go the long haul? Could space agencies from different nations pull off a second manned mission? Or will they be beat to the chase by a private player backed by business billions? Either way, no one has lost sight of the race to the moon and it remains a challenge many are still working to achieve.