The second race to the moon goes into high gear

The second race to the moon went into high gear when the Google Lunar X Prize officially certified that Moon Express has contracted with a company called Rocket Lab to launch its lunar lander on board an Electron rocket sometime in late 2017 to land on the moon. Moon Express is the second team competing for the $30 million prize to land on the moon to have acquired a certified launch contract. SpaceIL, an Israeli team, has already acquired a contract to launch their lander on board the SpaceX Falcon 9.

Moon Express and SpaceIL are not likely to be the only private teams to be in the final stretch of the new race to the moon in 2017. Astrobotic Technology is putting together its own Falcon 9 flight, sharing the ride with a number of other groups eager to send payloads to the moon, including Google Lunar XPrize rivals Team Hakuto from Japan and Team AngelicvM from Chile.

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The winner of the Google Lunar XPrize will be the team that lands on the moon, returns high-definition video and images from the lunar surface, and travels at least 500 meters from the initial landing site. The deadline is December 31, 2017.

It’s virtually certain that late 2017 will be an exciting time in the history of space exploration. The last race to the moon started when President John F. Kennedy threw down the gauntlet to send a man to the moon and bring him safely back to Earth by the end of the 1960s and ended when Neil Armstrong made that giant leap. Apollo was a clash of nations, involving hundreds of thousands of people and tens of billions of dollars. The new moon race involves small teams and, at most, a few million dollars and a lot of ingenuity and moxie. The two competitions are products of each of their eras. The Apollo program was a decisive competition in the Cold War. The Google Lunar XPrize constitutes the birth of the commercial exploration of space.

The question arises, after the champagne is drunk and the check handed over, what comes next?

Moon Express aspires to be the first lunar mining company, a prospect boosted recently by a commercial space bill that affirmed the right of private companies to exploit space resources. Astrobotic Technology would like to become a transportation service, taking payloads of paying customers to the moon.

When will people get to go back to the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 departed from the lunar surface in December 1972? The answer to that is murky.

In 2012, a company called Golden Spike announced its intention to take paying customers to the moon. The firm estimated that $7 billion would suffice to build the spacecraft, mostly commercial, to get the operation up and running. It intended to charge $750 million per seat for two-people jaunts to the lunar surface.

After a flurry of activity, it appears that Golden Spike has vanished from the face of the Earth, with its website now “under construction.” The last news from the company came nearly two years ago when Forbes interviewed its CEO, Alan Stern, more famous for being the principle investigator for the New Horizons Pluto probe.

Russia has aspirations to build a lunar base by the end of the 2020s, wiping out the humiliation it suffered at the hands of NASA. But the economic crisis that has gripped Russia since the collapse of the price of oil has resulted in draconian cutbacks to the Russian Space Agency.

Chinese leaders have expressed the desire to land their own astronauts on the moon. It has already landed the Chang’e 3 on the lunar surface and is planning more robotic probes in the future, But China has not revealed anything specific for a crewed lunar landing, except that it may happen in the 2020s.

In the meantime, NASA has eschewed a lunar return since the cancellation of the Constellation program. The space agency is embarked on the Road to Mars and finds the moon a distraction.

Of course, all of that is subject to change with the next administration.

Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has just published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is it so Hard to Go Back to the Moon? He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.