Beresheet 2: The latest in America’s inclusive return to the moon
Recently, NASA and the Israeli Space Agency commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Columbia Disaster — which took the life, among others, of Israel’s first astronaut Ilan Ramon — by signing a cooperation agreement concerning the Beresheet 2 lunar mission. NASA will provide communications and technology services for Israel’s second attempt to land on the moon. In return, Israel will share data gathered by the mission. In April 2022 Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed a similar agreement.
Beresheet 2 is slated to launch to the moon in 2025. It will consist of two small landers that will touch down on two separate areas of the lunar surface and an orbiter that will conduct a multi-year mission. Israel hopes it will meet with better success than the first Beresheet, which crash landed on the moon in April 2019. Beresheet 2, like its predecessor, is managed by SpaceIl, a private Israeli company.
The Beresheet 2 is the latest lunar mission that NASA has become a major partner in. The other is the Hakuto-R M1, a Japanese lander that also includes a UAE rover dubbed Rashid. Launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9, Hakuto is scheduled for a lunar landing in March 2023.
NASA’s partnerships with allied countries to assist their lunar exploration missions is one crucial difference between the current NASA-led Artemis program and the Apollo race to the moon of the 1960s. Both Artemis and Apollo were expressions of American soft political power, undertaking the inspiring feat of sending astronauts to the moon to garner prestige. But Artemis is approaching the effort differently than the 50-year-old Apollo lunar missions.
President John F. Kennedy made two speeches justifying the Apollo race to the moon, one before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, the other at Rice University on Sept. 12, 1962. The essence of why he thought we should go to the moon was expressed in a line from the first speech. “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish,” Kennedy said.
The Apollo 11 moon landing was certainly impressive. Indeed, America winning the moon race was a crucial factor in winning the Cold War. The Soviet leadership never recovered from the humiliation.
Fast forward to 2017 and the beginning of the Artemis program, Unlike during the 1960s, considerably more players, both international and commercial, were capable of at least attempting landing robotic probes on the lunar surface. NASA’s ingenious play was to offer its support to any friendly nation that proposed to undertake a moon landing.
NASA’s brand not only includes it being the only organization that has landed humans on the moon; it also enjoys a string of recent successes, including the Artemis I mission. What country in the world, aside from a few unfriendly powers such as China and Russia, would not want the American space agency’s help in their own moon shot?
It should be also noted that NASA is proving instrumental in enabling a commercial lunar transportation sector under the Commercial Lunar Payload Systems (CLPS) program. Private companies, with NASA participation, are mounting expeditions to the moon. Intuitive Machines, Astrobotic Technology and Masten Space Systems are scheduled to mount private moon shots in 2023. The very concept of commercial lunar expeditions was inconceivable during the Apollo era.
When humans first landed on the moon, most people of the world were passive observers. Now that humans are returning to the moon, over 50 years later, the world, including friendly countries and private companies, has become an active participant. When human beings next walk on the moon, this time to set up a base from which to delve into the moon’s scientific secrets and exploit its resources, the world and not just NASA will have returned.
One similarity between Artemis and Apollo is that a race to the moon has heated up, this time with China. The Chinese moon effort is robust but also cloaked in nationalism and imperial reach. China’s moon program is not inclusive. While some talk existed of a Sino-Russian lunar axis, Moscow has wasted too much blood and treasure at war in Ukraine to be an effective partner. China is, therefore, going it alone.
America’s inclusive return to the moon is vying with China’s exclusionary one. We’ll see which one is, to paraphrase JFK’s words with modern language, “more impressive to humankind.”
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.
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