Race to the Moon!

The two private firms involved are LunaCorp and TransOrbital, both of which are starting with orbiting photographic missions, to be followed by landers and sample return missions a few years down the road. The Wired article starts with a focus on Lunacorp, but TransOrbital seems closer to actually doing it, with a launch scheduled for October this year, a test launch under their belt from last December, and all the necessary permits squared away.

Both companies plan to make money from sales of their high-definition video and photographic images; TransOrbital also offers space on its craft for ordinary people to send their thoughts or mementos to the Moon.

Meanwhile, the European space agency is planning a lunar mission to be launched in July, and reported on not long ago. While the ESA mission launches before TransOrbital’s, it takes a lot longer to get there, and will likely only arrive after the private mission is completed. Japan also has a number of planned lunar missions coming up, and India and China have announced their intentions to get in on it as well.

Where does that leave NASA? There are currently no official plans for lunar missions; in fact NASA has not organized a lunar mission since Apollo 17 returned over 30 years ago, although the 1990’s did see two US missions – Clementine (Department of Defense!) and Lunar Prospector (adopted by NASA, but envisioned and planned by space advocates outside the agency). However, last year’s NRC decadal survey strongly recommended a lunar sample return mission from the South Pole Aitken basin area (where there is strong evidence for water ice), so NASA should be up to something soon; unfortunately NASA has strenuously avoided doing anything that involves the Moon since at least the first Bush administration’s Space Exploration Initiative (remember the $500 billion plan to go back to the Moon and on to Mars?)

And finally there are the more speculative plans – in particular David Criswell’s lunar solar power ideas seem to be gaining a lot of credibility in the last couple of years, as he has been able to articulate and defend them in a wide range of reputable venues. Will something come of this? Probably not within 10 years, but we’ll know a lot more about what the Moon holds in store for us soon enough – with or without NASA’s help!