Wed. Dec 11th, 2019

The new space race to the Moon | Science

In August 1969, a few days after the man stepped on the moon for the first time, a former SS officer explained to a US government panel how to bring humans to Mars in record time: exactly in November 1982. The project would be a new spatial victory over the Soviet Union and would answer a "universal" question: is there life elsewhere in the Solar System?

That man was called Wernher Von Braun and it was taken very seriously. He had designed the V2 supersonic rockets with which Nazi Germany burned London during World War II. A few days after Hitler committed suicide in his Reichstag bunker, an operation meticulously devised by Von Braun allowed him to be detained by US troops along with his closest collaborators. The Soviets were also after him, knowing that he was a mind capable of giving any country the domain of space. So it was. Von Braun designed for the USA the most powerful rocket ever built, the Saturn V, which brought man to the surface of the Moon for the first time on July 20, 1969, 50 years ago today.

Illustration of the landing module on Mars of the project developed by Wernher von Braun in 1969

Illustration of the landing module on Mars of the project developed by Wernher von Braun in 1969

That August Von Braun was heard, but they ignored him. The US had already won the space race with Apollo 11 and its strategic interest in the riskiest space exploration was declining – the Apollo program was canceled early and only arrived at flight 17 when it was scheduled until the 20th. NASA drifted towards the construction of a space station in Earth orbit, the development of a reusable space ship and the robotic exploration of the planets of the Solar System. Disappointed, Von Braun left NASA for the private company. He died of cancer in 1977. His plans included a rocket army with nuclear warheads that would assemble in Earth orbit before leaving for Mars, a travel configuration capable of generating own gravity and avoiding the effects of weightlessness on astronauts, and a lander and exploration module. If they had been carried out, humans could have stepped on Mars the same year that Steven Spielberg released ET the alien.

Von Braun's story comes to mind because it shows that human exploration of other worlds in the Solar System is a matter of political priorities and because, once again, the conquest of the Moon is once again in vogue. The Government of Donald Trump has assured that The USA is going to put a human on the Moon in 2024, a record time taking into account that neither the rocket that must take the astronauts there, nor the capsule that should transport them are not ready yet.

Test of landing of the Orion capsule that will take astronauts to the Moon

Test of landing of the Orion capsule that will take astronauts to the Moon

"Clearly we have to go very fast," explains Toni Carro, representative of NASA in Spain. "The goal is to take a woman and a man to the surface of the Moon in 2024 and build a lunar space station in 2028. The first test launches will begin next year and in 2022 we will make the first manned trip, but only to orbit the Moon and return, "he explains. "Actually, all this is part of the way to Mars. We are going to La Luna to gain experience with private companies and international partners on long-haul flights and to develop adequate radiation protection for astronauts. If everything goes well we will reach Mars in the 30s of this century, "adds Carro.

NASA administrator Jim Bridestine estimated the cost of this project at around 25 billion dollars last week in statements to CNN. This is what the Apolo program cost in the 60s and 70s, although that amount is equivalent to about 150,000 million in current money.

The new US lunar impulse comes shortly after China has taught muscle. On January 3 this country announced that he had landed on the hidden side of the moon. The Chang'e 4 mission had successfully carried an orbital module and a landing module that landed on the 186-km-diameter Von Kármán crater, which in turn is within the Aitken basin, one of the craters of largest impact of the solar system, with more than 2,000 kilometers in diameter. It is the first human ship that manages to do something like that. China already plans new robotic expeditions to the satellite to bring back lunar land.

"No doubt, we are in a new space race just like in the 60s, and this time the stakes are even higher," said Mike Pence, vice president of the US, who warned of China's intention to become a nation. dominant in space. The reality is much more gray than the republican politician proposes, because neither China seems to be prepared to rival the traditional space powers, nor are there such well-defined political blocs as in the Cold War capable of driving a real competition.

The Indian GSLV MkIII-M1 rocket 1 that will carry the Chandrayaan mission to the Moon 2

The Indian GSLV MkIII-M1 rocket 1 that will carry the Chandrayaan mission to the Moon 2

"I guess a new space race would be possible, but I think it's very unlikely," says Casey Dreier, an expert on the Chinese space program of the Planetary Society, founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan. Dreier explains that China is still lagging behind in technology and capacity to bring humans to the moon. Although that gap will be closing in the coming decades, it seems that the Asian country is not interested in competing with the US as much as continuing with its own plans, which are to build a space station in the Earth's orbit and, in any case, reach the Moon not before the decade of the 30s of this century, according to Dreier, when in theory the US would already be reaching Mars.

Europe goes hand in hand with the United States in the project of the lunar base, together with Russia, Canada and Japan. The greater the European participation in the new US plan, the more opportunities Europe will have to bring its own astronauts first to the lunar base and then to the surface of the satellite. The European Space Agency (ESA) has manufactured the Orion capsule service module that will take astronauts to the Moon. European companies, including some Spanish companies, are developing components of the future lunar station. In addition ESA leads the Heracles project to build a kind of space elevator between the orbital station and the surface of the Moon in which Japan and Canada also participate. The European agency is also studying how to extract water and oxygen on the Moon.

"The moon also contains minerals such as titanium, iron or aluminum and an abundant presence of Helium-3 from the solar wind", explains Javier Ventura-Traveset, spokesperson for ESA in Spain. "This light isotope, according to some nuclear fusion experts, could potentially become an ideal non-polluting fuel, and this week we have concluded an agreement with NASA confirming that in addition to participating in the Artemis 1 and Artemis 2 access missions to the lunar orbit, Europe will also participate in the Artemis 3 mission in 2024, "he highlights.

All these projects are steps towards the call "Lunar village", a concept promoted by the current director general of ESA, Jan Woerner, to develop a lunar base based on international cooperation. Europe has no problems in collaborating with China on space projects and in fact European astronauts study Chinese, a language that may be essential to enter the future space station that this country plans to install in Earth orbit.

The new contender in this race is India, which wants to become the fourth country to land successfully on the Moon. The Chandrayaan 2 mission of this country will mark a milestone when trying to send an orbital module to the satellite from which a lander will be detached that will land on a plain between two craters of the South Pole. The project includes a small exploration robot of 27 kilos capable of traveling about 500 meters and will be operational for about 14 days. After a technical failure that prevented it from being released, the Indian Space Research Agency is scheduled to take off for Monday at 11:43 in the morning, the peninsular time.

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