The U.S. has abandoned its lunar return dream, but other space leaders are actively planning their first manned visit.
While an absurd number of Americans still doubt that NASA’s 1969-’72 moon landings actually happened — yes, the conspiracy theories have endured for more than 40 years; and thank you, Apollo 18 — there’s no question that the U.S. has postponed revisiting our nearest celestial neighbor in the foreseeable future due to NASA budget cuts and redirected priorities. (NASA’s current manned space exploration plan, under President Barack Obama, is focused on sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and toward a Mars landing in the 2030s.)
Fortunately, other Earthlings are interested in retracing lunar pioneer Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for a man,” with Russia, China and India stepping into the vacuum left by the moribund U.S. program, which Armstrong recently described as “embarrassing and unacceptable.”
Well, if we have to root for the “visiting” teams, we may as well get to know them:
Agency: Russian Federal Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS)
Experience: The Russkies have long sought to visit the moon and have launched numerous probes and landers since the 1950s. In fact, their Luna 2 was the first man-made object to reach the moon, and Luna 10 became its first artificial satellite. Luna 17 and 21 carried vehicles that roamed around on the planetoid’s surface. Subsequent landers returned samples of lunar rock to Earth. The current unmanned Luna-Glob (or lunar sphere) program has been in gestation since the 1990s and is planned to launch in 2014.
Moon Plan: Luna-Glob is the first of four missions planned before the creation of a robotic lunar base scheduled after 2015. Russia’s manned landing has been proposed for 2025.
Agency: Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)
Experience: Launched in 2008, Chandrayaan-1 was India’s first mission to the moon. Unmanned, it included a lunar orbiter and an impactor called the Moon Impact Probe. The orbiter carried high-resolution remote sensing equipment for visible, near infrared, and soft and hard X-ray frequencies. It operated for 312 days, creating a 3D map of the moon’s chemical characteristics. The Impact Probe blasted moon bits into a visible plume that was analysed for water. More robot probes are planned.
Moon Plan: With a budget of some $2.47 billion set aside for a human spaceflight program, their first manned lunar mission could launch by 2020.
Agency: China National Space Administration (CNSA)
Experience: The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) has been ambitiously moving forward over the past decade. The first spacecraft of the program, the unmanned orbiter Chang’e 1 (named for the Chinese moon goddess), was launched in 2007 and gathered data to create the most accurate and highest-resolution 3D map ever created of the lunar surface. A second unmanned orbiter, Chang’e 2, was launched in 2010. Chang’e 3, carrying China’s first lunar rover, is expected to launch in 2013.
Moon Plan: China’s first manned lunar expedition may occur in 2025.