The new space race between the US, and Russia (and China) is nothing like it was in the early 1970s, despite the moon being a common objective. Elon Musk alone might beat them there, but will it be a woman who sets foot first?
It will be "a complex of experimental research facilities created on the surface and/or in orbit of the Moon, with the possibility of long-term unmanned operation with the prospect of a human presence on the moon," read a Roscosmos statement.
This comes on the heels of months of talks between the two space powers, as Russia considered joining NASA's Gateway program, a rival lunar space station on schedule for construction by a gigantic coalition of other countries and private entities during the coming decade.
China has sent numerous robotic Chang'e missions to the lunar satellite, which accomplished the first landing on the far side of the moon, and executed a sample retrieve mission last December 2020.
By contrast, Russia has had a decades-long partnership with NASA on the International Space Station, but has hesitated and declined to extend this relationship with the U.S. to the moon.
NASA ramped up its efforts to return astronauts to the moon during the Trump administration via the Artemis program. This included a multilateral pact called the Artemis Accords, which set out universal standards of behavior in space.
NASA has finalized agreements with Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency for efforts on the Lunar Gateway.
The Gateway Project
The Gateway will be an outpost orbiting the Moon that provides vital support for a sustainable, long-term human return to the lunar surface, as well as a staging point for deep space exploration. It is a critical component of NASA’s Artemis program.
Gaining new experiences on and around the Moon will prepare NASA to send the first humans to Mars in the coming years.
NASA has focused Gateway development on the initial critical elements required to support the 2024 landing – the Power and Propulsion Element, the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO), and logistics capabilities.
HALO will be the initial crew cabin for astronauts visiting the Gateway. Its primary purpose is to provide basic life support needs for the visiting astronauts after they arrive in the Orion and prepare for their trip to the lunar surface.
In March 2020, NASA announced SpaceX as the first U.S. commercial provider under the Gateway Logistics Services contract to deliver cargo and other supplies to the Gateway.
NASA women over the moon
Twelve American men have walked on the moon. The next footprint on the moon will be made by a woman. The astronaut who gets that assignment hasn't been chosen yet.
And the Artemis program isn't just named for a woman. it's largely being run by women. Charlie Blackwell Thompson is NASA's first female launch director.
In a year or so, she'll give the "go for launch" command for the first Artemis moon rocket in historic Firing Room One at Kennedy Space Center, which she first visited more than 30 years ago as a college graduate interviewing for a job. And it will be the same room that the Apollo 11 mission was launched. Blackwell-Thompson says that on launch day, 30% of the engineers in what's now her firing room will be women. The pool of 18 Artemis astronauts has already been chosen. Nine women, nine men. Six of whom are test pilots, four have Ph.D.'s, three are medical doctors. It's not known yet which of them will fly to the moon, but two are in space right now on the International Space Station.
Jody Singer is another female first for NASA: as the first woman to run Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, it's been her job to build the Space Launch System (SLS), an American Space Shuttle-derived super heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle.
Scientists are especially tantalized by recent evidence that there's a lot of ice near the moon's South Pole. That's exactly where Artemis is meant to land. Ice means H2O, which means water to sustain life, and hydrogen and oxygen to potentially turn into rocket fuel.
NASA sees the Moon as a pit stop for missions to Mars and has done a deal with Finnish mobile firm Nokia to set up a 4G network there.
Elon Musk's SpaceX plans to fly several ordinary people to the Moon in 2023 on a trip bankrolled by Japanese millionaire Yusaku Maezawa. With a string of test flight explosions dogging the Starship which is due to carry the space tourists there and back, the #dearMoon voyage is unlikely to happen any time soon. However, SpaceX scored a coup by carrying four astronauts on one of its Crew Dragons to the International Space Station in November.
Musk is far from the only private investor taking a shot at the Moon. Japanese start-up ispace has signed up SpaceX to help it make two landings, the first next October. ispace likes to think big. It once suggested putting up a giant advertising billboard on the Moon to help pay for its mission. Japan's JAXA space agency is also planning a lunar landing in 2022 building on the success of sending three craft into its orbit in 2007.
The moon, lacking an atmosphere to shield it, is constantly under attack with meteorites bombarding its volcanic surface. On the moon, there's no air to breathe, no breezes to make the flags planted there flutter. However, there is a very, very thin layer of gases on the lunar surface that can almost be called an atmosphere. Technically, it's considered an exosphere.