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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

40 Years Later, It's Moon Race 2.0

Illustration by Robert Grossman for TIME

You probably wouldn't have had much fun on the surface of the moon. It's not the exploring or the bouncing or the buggy-roving that would have bothered you. It's the worrying.

Landing on the moon is fine, but you need to get home too. That means heaving your multiton spacecraft back off the ground and up into space--and if that's going to happen, all its thousands of components have to work just so. There's no guarantee that they will--which is why the first time men landed on the moon, President Richard Nixon had a short address prepared just in case things went wrong. "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace," he would have said. When they're writing your obit while you're still alive, it's hard to have a good time.

But the astronauts themselves had a grand time on the moon--and the U.S. had just as much fun sending them there. For a big, loud, hootenanny nation like ours--one that has spent the better part of its history whooping its way west--having an empty landmass to explore a quarter-million miles (more than 400,000 km) offshore was a powerful tonic. The fact that the exploring took place in what was otherwise a very hard decade made the experience only more bracing.

By any measure, the current decade is a hard one too. And again--perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not--we're eyeing the moon. By 2015, to hear NASA tell it, a new manned spacecraft--the evocatively named Orion--will be carrying crews to Earth's orbit. By 2020, Orion will be paired with the lunar lander Altair. That same year, fresh American bootprints will be made on the lunar soil--the first since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Contractors have been chosen, metal is being cut, and most important, money has been allocated. "This is a real program," says Jeff Hanley, manager of NASA's Constellation program, which oversees manned exploration. "We're spending a couple hundred million dollars a month, and thousands of people are marching to a strategy."

Globalization is driving the new push. As the economies of Asia and Europe spread new wealth, more and more countries are realizing that the moon is within reach. Never mind the two-party U.S.-Soviet moon race of old. This time China is in the hunt. So are India, Japan and the entire 17-nation European Space Agency (ESA). On Oct. 22, India launched its Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, an unmanned lunar orbiter that marks the country's first table stakes in the moon game. China's Chang'e 1 spacecraft is already in lunar orbit, as is Japan's Selene. Europe's SMART-1 entered lunar orbit in 2003, and the ESA wants to go back. China broadly aims to have astronauts on the moon by 2020. The ESA is hoping to build a "global robotic village" by 2016 and a permanent manned base by 2024.

And none of this includes the private sector. Last fall, Google offered a $30 million prize to any group that lands a robot on the lunar surface before Dec. 31, 2012, travels at least 500 m (1,640 ft.) and sends back video. In the first six months after the prize was announced, 560 groups from 53 nations expressed interest. All at once, the moon, which has spent nearly 40 years as a cultural colony of the U.S. alone, has a lot of new claimants.

Robots First

The most powerful player in the moon race, apart from the U.S., is China. If the past hundred years were the American century, the next hundred could be China's, and nothing says rising power like a space program. "Chinese people have a lot of feeling for President Kennedy," says Li Jing, an astronomer formerly with the Chinese Academy of Science. "The Apollo project catapulted the U.S. into scientific leadership. The U.S.'s national power shot up. Chinese people are very clear about that."

In 2003, China acted on that clarity, launching its first manned mission, a 14-orbit flight by a lone astronaut. In 2005 a two-man crew went up for a five-day stay, and in September 2008, a three-man team flew a mission complete with a spacewalk.

But China's true fascination has long been the moon--at least since 1978, when the U.S. presented Beijing with a 1-g (.035 oz.) sample of lunar rock brought back by the Apollo 17 mission. Chinese officials razored off half of that moon crumb and gave it to scientists to study. "From that half a gram, we produced 40 papers," space scientist Ouyang Ziyuan told the People's Daily.

China won't be begging the U.S. for lunar scraps anymore. Chang'e 1, launched in October 2007 and named for China's goddess of the moon, is currently orbiting 125 miles (200 km) above the lunar surface. The ship is stuffed with equipment to study the ground and look for possible landing sites. Chang'e 2 is set to follow next year with another orbital mission, followed by a rover in 2012 and a robotic sample-return mission in 2017. A manned trip could come after that. "The Chinese have read the Apollo playbook," says Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on the Chinese space program at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

India's moon program is less ambitious--so far--but the country has a deep space tradition. The Indian government has been in the satellite-launching game since 1975, but it always focused on such bread-and-butter science as land-mapping, weather-forecasting and communications. In a country struggling with chronic poverty, even the most ambitious ruling party dared go no further. All that changed in 1998, when India and Pakistan rattled the world with dueling nuclear tests. In the heady, protech rush that followed, then Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee approved an Indian lunar push and chose to make the announcement as part of the Independence Day celebrations of 2003. A Chandrayaan-2 rover is planned for 2011.

Like the Chinese program, the Indian one would not exist at all but for a roaring national economy--notwithstanding the current global slowdown. "What is the purpose of 8% growth if we can't make the spending necessary to sustain it?" asks Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India's NASA.

The biggest difference between the old moon race and the new one may be the role of the private sector. In 2004 pilot and aerospace designer Bert Rutan copped the $10 million Ansari X Prize by designing the first manned vehicle to fly to and from suborbital space twice within a week. In September 2007, aerospace engineer Peter Diamandis, ceo of the X Prize group, announced he was partnering with Google to offer a new, $30 million Lunar X Prize, with the goal of having a private rover toddling about the moon by the end of 2012.

The vast majority of the teams responding to the contest do not have the skill or seed money to compete seriously. But so far 14 groups do, and Google has okayed them as contestants. Made up mostly of aerospace and software pros, the teams are allowed to use commercial rockets to launch their probes but must build the ships and steer them to a moon landing on their own. The designers exhibit a surprising sangfroid about their work. "There's no magic. We did it in the '60s, and the physics are the same," says aerospace engineer Bob Richards, head of a design team.

The Humans Return

Robots, of course, are limited--Scouts and surrogates largely unsuited to the complex lunar work researchers want to undertake. Geologists hope to continue the studies of solar-system origins that the Apollo crews began (before Nixon scrapped the manned-moon program in favor of the ostensibly more practical and affordable space shuttle). Astronomers talk of placing a radio telescope on the moon's far side; energy experts want to mine the moon's helium 3, an isotope that could power clean-fusion reactors back on Earth. And anyone dreaming of a human presence on Mars knows that before you attempt long-duration stays on a body tens of millions of miles from home, it's best to practice on one nearby. "You wring these techniques out on the moon first," says Mark Geyser, manager of the Orion project.

In 2004, President George W. Bush announced a moon-Mars initiative that would commit NASA to those kinds of goals. Skeptics suspected this was just a bit of election-year candy--and that may have been part of the plan. But the initial idea was accompanied by some hardheaded trade-offs. The grossly overpriced International Space Station would be completed by 2010, allowing the outdated space shuttles to be retired. This would free up between $3 billion and $4 billion a year without increasing NASA's budget. Since Americans still need access to space, the shuttle would be replaced with an updated Apollo-style orbiter. Pair that with a souped-up lunar lander similar to the original, and you're back on the moon. "We're anchoring our models in Apollo data points," says Cleon Lacefield, a vice president and project manager for Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the Orion orbiter.

Actually, NASA is doing Apollo one better. In the old lunar program, one massive Saturn V booster did all the lifting, but this time there will be two rockets. The Ares V, the larger of the pair, will be used to carry the new lunar lander as far as Earth's orbit and make unmanned cargo runs to the moon. The smaller Ares I will lift the command module, carrying four astronauts, to meet the lander. Dividing the job between two rockets frees up more payload space on the Ares V. And unlike the Saturn V, which had to be invented from the engine bells up, the Ares boosters will go the frugal route by adapting existing hardware, such as the solid-fuel boosters from the shuttle and an upper-stage engine from the Saturn rockets themselves.

One of the quirkiest features of the old Apollo missions was that while three men would fly to the moon, only two would descend to the surface; the third minded the mother ship. This time there will be a four-person crew, and all the crew members will get a chance to get dirty while the orbiter that is their ticket home waits unattended above. "We have greater control over the orbiter than we used to," says Clinton Dorris, deputy manager of the Altair lander program. What's more, with lunar campouts of up to six months planned--compared with the record three-day stay of Apollo 17 in 1972--leaving one crewmember alone is simply not tenable.

So far, Orion and the boosters are the furthest along in their production cycles, since every day that they delay extends the five-year period when Americans have no independent access to space. To fill that gap, the plan has been to thumb a ride to the space station with the Russians aboard their venerable Soyuz ships. But with tensions rising between Washington and Moscow since the Russian invasion of Georgia, worries are rising too. This could lead NASA either to postpone mothballing the shuttles--a bad idea when you're talking about a creaky fleet that's already claimed 14 lives--or to accelerate building the replacement vehicles.

It's no secret which option NASA prefers, but the question will be whether there's enough will and wallet to get the job done. The Wall Street crash does not portend big budgets for what some people see as a luxury agency like NASA. And President-elect Barack Obama may not feel much loyalty to a lunar program that so indelibly bears the Bush stamp. But having successfully reeled in Florida on Election Day, he's not likely to do anything to tick off its space-happy voters either. Plus, there are jobs to be created in a newly revived moon program. "When we won the Orion contract, we posted openings for 2,000 jobs," says Lockheed's Lacefield. "We received 30,000 applications."

Finally, of course, there's the question that's dogged every manned flight since the Soviet Union's Yuri Gagarin first went into orbit in 1961: Why bother? Space planners have always justified today's flights as necessary rehearsals for tomorrow's--we can't live on Mars if we don't learn to live on the moon first. True enough, but couldn't we just do neither? As for deep-space observatories on the far side of the moon, the Hubble telescope has done perfectly well alone in orbit, with only a few maintenance missions in 18 years. How much harder would it be to build a moon-based telescope that didn't need any?

None of that, of course, reckons with the other piece of the equation--the wholly unscientific joy we feel when we do something as preposterous as putting people in space. None of it reckons either with the primal jolt Americans have always gotten from competition--the gunning-the-engine moment when we decide that if China and Japan and India and Europe are peeling out for the moon, the U.S. can surely beat them there. That ain't sensible, and that ain't science, but as it was 40 years ago, it sure is fun.

See pictures of five nations' space programs.