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The second iteration of the race to space: examining Europe’s involvement in the new competition for lunar exploration.


In terms of announcements about space exploration, a recent speech at a summit held by the European Space Agency (Esa) was not as impactful as the speech given by President John F Kennedy at Rice University in Houston, Texas in 1962. In his speech, Kennedy stated with great conviction, “We choose to go to the moon.” This declaration led the US to successfully land Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969, effectively concluding the space race with the Soviet Union.

But during a press conference in November, Esa’s director general Josef Aschbacher, highlighted the significance of Europe’s space program in his speech at the Esa space summit in Seville, Spain.

According to the unanimous decision of the 22 European countries that financially support and manage Esa, which includes the UK, the space agency plans to hold a competition for businesses to submit proposals for a cargo spacecraft that will travel to and from the International Space Station (ISS) by 2028. However, the most significant development came with Aschbacher’s following statement: “We will also design it in a way that allows for future evolution, rather than being a closed option, so that it can potentially become a crew vehicle if member states choose to do so.”

Europe is embarking on a historic journey with the development of their first crew transportation vehicle. This vehicle will initially be used for transporting humans to and from the ISS, but there are plans for further evolution that could allow for travel to destinations beyond low Earth orbit. If all goes according to plan and there is strong political support, Europe could potentially have the capability to land their own astronauts on the moon in the future.

President John F Kennedy’s ‘We choose to go to the Moon’ speech, given at Rice University in Houston, Texas, in September 1962, aimed to bolster public support for the US moonshot.

Esa’s European Astronaut Centre, led by Frank De Winne in Cologne, Germany, acknowledges the importance of working together with other countries, particularly the US, in order to build stronger partnerships.

According to him, having a capable partner strengthens your partnership. He notes that after the US space shuttle program ended, the Russian Soyuz capsules played a crucial role in maintaining the functionality of the ISS by adjusting its orbit and transporting crew to and from Earth.

The conflict in Ukraine has resulted in a significant break in relations between Russia and both Europe and the US, creating an opportunity for Europe to step in. There are currently only three countries with the ability to independently send astronauts into space: the US, Russia, and China. India has publicly announced its goal to become the fourth country by conducting unmanned test flights of its Gaganyaan capsule starting next year.

In February, Esa was motivated to quickly establish its own path towards a human transportation system. This was prompted by the release of a report, titled Revolution Space: Europe’s Mission for Space Exploration, by a team of 12 independent advisers. The report suggests that space is currently experiencing a significant transformation, similar to the development of the internet two decades ago, and that this will have an impact on all aspects of life. In fact, it already has in many ways.

Our society is now utterly dependent on the satellites that orbit Earth. The communications and navigation services that they make possible are so interwoven in our everyday lives that in the UK, space is classed as one of 13 critical national infrastructure sectors.

Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon at Tranquillity Base, 20 July 1969. Aldrin and fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong spent two and a half hours on the lunar surface, setting up experiments and collecting rock samples.

According to the Revolution Space report, Europe’s future success relies on having a powerful and self-sufficient method of launching payloads and individuals into space. The report emphasizes that without this capability, Europe will be relegated to a consumer role in the space industry, similar to how the world currently depends on Silicon Valley for computing technology.

Aschbacher’s vision for Esa’s cargo vehicle and new rocket, revealed in Seville, involves a different approach. Rather than collaborating with a contractor to create the spacecraft, Esa plans to purchase the service from a private company. The resulting vehicle will not belong to Esa, but rather to the company, who can then offer their services globally to those willing to pay for them.

Nasa and Elon Musk’s SpaceX have collaborated to create a successful launch vehicle model in the US. Their efforts have led to impressive achievements. According to Prof Ian Crawford of Birkbeck, University of London, SpaceX has undeniably lowered the cost of space launch and will greatly benefit lunar exploration. This has also allowed for faster progress in lunar exploration by commercial entities.

Yes, this is true. NASA is currently implementing a similar method of acquiring services with private American companies in order to gain knowledge in successfully landing robotic payloads on the moon. If everything goes according to plan, on Christmas Eve, Astrobotic Technology, a US company, will send out their Peregrine Mission One lunar lander. This lander was created and constructed through NASA’s commercial lunar payload services program.

The global interest in visiting the moon is rapidly increasing. Dr. Nasr Al-Sahhaf encounters this regularly. He leads the organization of International Moon Day, which takes place on July 20 and was officially recognized by the UN General Assembly in December 2021. Sahhaf’s role involves communicating with companies and governments worldwide who are interested in commemorating the future of lunar exploration.

According to Sahhaf, there is a strong desire to explore and establish settlements on the moon, as if to compensate for the extended period of time since the Apollo missions. This indicates a widespread interest in humanity’s return to the moon.

Japan’s Smart Lander for Investigating the Moon taking off on a rocket

There is also a growing interest from various new participants in lunar exploration. Out of the three robotic missions to the moon that were launched this year, only one was from a well-established space program and unfortunately, it was unsuccessful. On August 19th, Russia encountered problems with their lunar lander during its descent and as a result, Luna-25 crashed onto the desolate surface.

In July, India successfully launched the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft. On August 5th, it entered lunar orbit and on August 23rd, its lander successfully landed near the lunar south pole. This accomplishment made India the fourth nation, following the US, Russia, and China, to achieve a soft-landing on the moon. It also became the first country to land at the moon’s south pole, which is of particular interest for potential future lunar bases due to the presence of water ice in the permanently shadowed craters in that region.

Japan’s Slim mission, also known as the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon, was launched on September 6th from the Tanegashima Space Centre. Dubbed the “Moon Sniper”, the spacecraft is currently in orbit around the moon and is anticipated to make a precise landing on the surface in January.

In this situation, precision refers to accurately landing within a distance of 100 meters (328 feet) from a specific location. This skill will be essential for safely transporting individuals and equipment to a designated landing area on a potential lunar base. To put this into perspective, during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, Armstrong and Aldrin’s landing zone could have been anywhere within an ellipse of approximately 11 miles by 3 miles (18km by 5km), based on their approach trajectory.

Crawford is concerned about the potential negative consequences of the worldwide attention on this topic. It may lead to a competition for space exploration and claiming land on the moon, unless there is some kind of organized effort and establishment of rules for lunar activities. However, there is currently a noticeable shortage of binding agreements in place.

The United Nations made an attempt in 1979 with the moon treaty to establish the concept that the moon and its resources belong to all humans, and therefore should not be exploited unless through a globally agreed upon framework. However, this framework was never established and the treaty was only signed by a few countries, not including major space-faring nations like the US, Russia, and China. As a result, many do not see the treaty as having any legal power on an international level.

Yulia Peresild climbing out of a space capsule

In 2007, a group of 14 global space organizations formed the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) to facilitate the sharing of plans and collaboration. According to Crawford, ISECG is often overlooked in these discussions and deserves more recognition.

This is due to the fact that it involves various countries such as China, Russia, the US, Europe, and Japan. Despite the changes on the global scale over the years, the ISECG has maintained its strength and purpose. The upcoming meeting will be held in December. Through collaboration, these agencies have created the Global Exploration Roadmap, outlining the potential contributions of space agencies worldwide to a unified lunar exploration initiative.

According to Crawford, this serves as a template. While it may not currently receive much attention from high-level politicians, the important thing is that the framework does exist and should be improved.

In addition to ISECG, there is another organization called the Moon Village Association (MVA). Giuseppe Reibaldi, who had a 35-year career at Esa, founded this non-profit organization in 2017. During his time at Esa, he spent nearly half of it working on developing payloads for the European Columbus laboratory module on the ISS.

Reibaldi believes that involving civil society in the exploration of the moon is important. He suggests creating an NGO that specifically focuses on the moon, as this will bring together various stakeholders from different nations, industries, academia, and economic and cultural backgrounds.

Enthusiastic fan Arun Haryani holds up a picture of the launch rockets that took India’s Chandrayaan-3 into space on 14 July . Its Vikram lander touched down on the moon on 23 August.

The MVA is organizing its seventh worldwide workshop in Kurashiki and Tottori, Japan, in December to exchange ideas on efficient methods for lunar exploration. Additionally, it established International Moon Day and holds a permanent observer position at the United Nations’ committee on the peaceful uses of outer space.

In the end, the country that reaches the moon first will have a significant influence on the governance of lunar activities, regardless of which international organization emerges. This also has implications beyond just the moon, as many view it as a stepping stone towards the ultimate goal of Mars exploration.

De Winne believes it is crucial for Europe to be involved in humanity’s mission to Mars and have a seat at the table. This will only be possible if Europe has the required capabilities.

De Winne and his team will investigate ways to put into action the recommendations outlined in the Revolution Space document. They will present their results at the upcoming Esa space summit in 2025, and await the decisions that will be made.

Source: theguardian.com