PARIS — Even as the global economy struggles to recover, investment in space activities is flying high. The overall public expenditure in the sector — approximately $70 billion today — has been steadily increasing, projected to reach $80 billion in the next few years. And the commitment is not just growing deeper, but also wider: More than 70 different countries have invested at least $10 million in space programs, double the number from just 10 years ago.
But the motivation is more than economic: The investments in space are also driven by that most human of desires to explore. Countries know that no other kind of mission can compete with the adventures into space in the attraction exerted on the public imagination. Nothing else — except for sport, perhaps — can offer such a visible success for a nation than explorations into space. Between the U.S., China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Europe, 14 different missions on or near the Moon, 13 Mars-related missions, as well as others of asteroids and other planets of the Solar System are planned for the coming years.
Much has been made about the many cuts proposed by the federal budget submitted this month by the new U.S. administration of President Donald Trump. But NASA remained virtually untouched, maintaining a fixed budget, mainly focused on what the Trump administration has defined a priority: further space exploration. And while the proposal seems to confirm the NASA project launched by the Obama administration to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, the most notable new focus is on an old destination: the Moon.
The first Chinese lunar roving vehicle, Yutu, — part of the Chang'e 3 mission — boasting a 150-meter altitude range, reached a record of permanence of 31 months on the moon before shutting off last August. The Chang'e mission had achieved the first soft landing on the moon after 40 years (the last one was achieved by the Soviet Union in 1976) with a robotic lander the Jade Rabbit (Yutu) robot. The Chinese ambitions for the moon are notable, and in the coming years include a series of missions aimed to prepare the arrival of astronauts ("taikonauts"), as well as a subsequent construction of a lunar base.
The desire to be back on the Moon is not only about science.
And U.S. plans? A few weeks ago, the Trump administration asked NASA to assess the possibility of a return trip to the Moon for two astronauts, with a projection date of 2019. If successful, it will be the first travel in deep space — that is to say past the international space station — in the 45 years since the last Apollo mission in December 1972. NASA has also announced this month its plans to move ahead with plans to construct a human outpost in cislunar space to be deployed in parallel with the International Space Station.
But no less consequential are the private initiatives. Elon Musk's high-profile SpaceX program aims to launch two private citizens for a space trip around the Moon by the end of 2018. If SpaceX will respect the deadlines, beating NASA, this will be not only the first human mission beyond the Earth orbit, but also the first mission privately funded.
A SpaceX Falcon9 rocket blasts off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 19 — Photo: Red Huber/TNS/ZUMA
Then, there is prime Musk rival, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who is full-steam ahead with Blue Origin, where the space vehicle currently in development, the New Glenn, will be launched as a plane in cislunar space, between the Earth and Moon. Bezos recently presented a white paper to NASA leadership to propose the development of an Amazon-like commercial delivery service to transport goods, experiment materials and housing modules to the Moon by the middle of the next decade.
"It is time for America to return to the Moon — this time to stay," Bezos wrote.
The United Launch Alliance, meanwhile, has also presented its Cislunar-1,000 vision, aimed at having 1,000 people living and working in the space by 2045.
Why the Moon? The scientific interest is mainly linked to its soil, aged around 3 to 4.5 billion years. Except for Mercury, almost inaccessible for us, the Moon is the only place where an inestimable treasure on the evolution of the solar system has been preserved.
But the desire to be back on the Moon is not only about science. Being able to set foot on Mars, not to mention permanent colonies built some 140 million miles away, is still only a dream. Risks are extraordinarily high and the technology needed to make it possible far from developed. The Moon, instead, is reachable: about a three-day trip away. The technological progress and the experience gained in the last decades have led us within reach of establishing permanent human colonies. This would result in tourism as well as rare resources extractions. The Moon also has another advantage: It is a project that can be realized within the timeframe of politics, as the resources needed to take 239,000 miles can be projected in the orbit of an electoral mandate. The next giant step for humanity is looking closer every day.
*This article was originally written in Italian by our Worldcrunch iQ expert contributor Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta, an astrophysicist at the European Space Agency. It was translated by iQ language contributor Cristina Covone.
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