On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin climbed down from the Apollo 11 lander and planted their boots on the lunar surface. The United States had beaten its rival, the Soviet Union, in the race to put humans on the moon.
Fifty years later, a new race is on. “Our team is excited to get back to the moon as quickly as possible,” says Marshall Smith of NASA. But now, NASA has more competition. China’s focusing on space travel, and private companies are building rockets, too.
Why go back? There are fortunes to be made in lunar exploration. Space-based businesses add $350 billion to the world economy . And new technologies are discovered along the way. GPS navigation came out of space research. Future space research may lead to advances in artificial intelligence .
Plus, the moon holds riches of its own. Minerals found there could be used in electronics manufacturing. Lunar ice could be turned into oxygen for visiting astronauts. Combine that oxygen with hydrogen, and you get clean rocket fuel. Ships could fill their tanks on the moon before taking off for more distant places, such as Mars.
In March, Vice President Mike Pence declared that NASA would send the next man and the first woman to the moon by 2024. “Urgency” is key, he says.
The rush is because of China. Since 2003, the country has flown multiple crewed missions and launched a mini space station. In January, it became the first nation to land an uncrewed base station and rover on the far side of the moon. “We are building China into a space giant,” Wu Weiren, the rover’s designer, said at the time.
But the U.S. leads in rocketry know-how. NASA is building its most powerful rocket ever, the Space Launch System. It will carry a craft called Orion to the Gateway orbiter (see sidebar, Space Base). From there, crews will take a lander on trips to the moon’s surface.
NASA’s budget is around $20 billion. The Trump administration has asked Congress to add another $1.6 billion. But according to NASA’s Mark Kirasich, public support for funding lunar projects just isn’t there. “We could fly more often with more funding if the nation wanted to fly more often,” he says.
There’s no shortage of money at Blue Origin. The company’s owner is the billionaire head of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. In May, he unveiled plans for Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander. Its anticipated launch date is 2024. “It’s time to go back to the moon,” Bezos says.
Another company, SpaceX, expects to send people to the International Space Station next year. In 2021, it plans to launch Starship, a moon orbiter with room for 100 passengers. NASA’s Orion can hold only six people.
Instead of just visiting the moon, SpaceX’s founder, billionaire Elon Musk, imagines a permanent lunar base. Still, Musk knows he has big historical boots to fill. “Apollo 11 was one of the most inspiring things in all human history,” he says. “I’m not sure SpaceX would exist if not for Apollo 11.”
Think of Gateway as a base camp for exploring the moon. Though it will serve as a home for several astronauts, it will be no bigger than a small apartment. It will travel in an egg-shaped orbit around the moon. Astronauts will position Gateway over the spot they want to explore, then take a lander down to the lunar surface.
NASA plans to send parts up to Gateway in uncrewed rockets over the next few years. The space agency is eager to get Gateway built by 2024. It will allow people to explore more of the moon than they ever could on the Apollo missions.
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