During the height of the Space Age, the United States and the Soviet Union bushwhacked a frantic path to the lunar surface, landing nearly 20 spacecraft softly on the moon between 1966 and 1976, including the six carrying NASA’s Apollo astronauts.
But after the last of these missions, a robotic Soviet probe that brought back six ounces of lunar soil, Earth’s closest neighbor was virtually abandoned. The public and politicians lost interest.
While the occasional orbiter has launched to survey the moonsince then,in more than 42 years only one spacecraft touched down softly on the lunar surface: China’s Chang’e 3 in 2013.
However, the moon, often referred to as the eighth continent, is again the center of a reinvigorated space race that, like any good Hollywood reboot, features a new cast of characters and novel story lines.
There is the rise of China, which on Jan. 3 landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, a historic first. This month, an Israeli spacecraft destined for the moon is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla. If successful, it would make Israel the fourth country, after the United States, Russia and China, to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface.
Later this year — the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing — two more moon missions are planned, one by India and another, by China. On Thursday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the space agency intends to partner with the private sector to land an American spacecraft on the moon as early as this year.
“It’s important we get back to the moon as fast as possible,” he told reporters. “We’re going to take shots on goal.”
If those landings are successful, it would set a record: the most soft lunar landings in a single year, surpassing 1966 and 1972, which each saw three vehicles touch down. (At the beginning of the Space Age, many spacecraft ended up crashing into the moon.)
The Trump administration has said a return to the moon is a top priority. And NASA this month announced a plan to develop spacecraft capable of bringing humans to the lunar surface by 2028. That’s a key step, NASA says, in building a permanent presence on and near the moon.
“This time, when we go to the moon, we’re actually going to stay,” Bridenstine said. “We’re not going to leave flags and footprints, and then come home, to not go back for another 50 years.”
Like the Cold War-era Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the new lunar activity is fueled by national pride and a quest for scientific discovery in a high-stakes contest among countries, especially with China.
Yet, unlike the Apollo era, this Space Age is being driven by a third factor: greed. A growing number of corporations are benefiting from new technologies and wealthy backers chasing an unproven dream that a lucrative business can be built on the moon and deep space by extracting the metals and resources on the surface on the moon.
Though the prospect of a self-sustaining lunar-mining economy may be little more than a chimera, the moon is drawing investors and explorers the way the promise of the American West once did. As a result, several lunar-prospecting companies have emerged with plans to fly spacecraft to the moon in the coming years.
They are attracted by “the gleam of the gold prospector going out to San Francisco in ,” said Ellen Stofan, the director of the National Air and Space Museum. “Is there an actual economic motive for going, which has brought in a new wave of companies? There’s all this talk of a new space economy.”
Still, she is skeptical it is happening any time soon. “Is there a profit motive yet?” Stofan said. “I would argue there’s probably not one. But I would argue that there is going to be someday. But is that someday in 20 years? Is it in 50 years?”
Like the West once was, space is distant and dangerous. During his 2012 presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich proposed setting up a moon base and was ridiculed. Even the most optimistic predict many businesses will fail — several already have — mistaking the seductive lure of opportunity as little more than a siren’s song.
Space, especially deep space, is still very much the province of governments, not corporations. If the fear of being surpassed by other nations and the quest for knowledge are what have driven space exploration, it is still not clear that greed alone can sustain a commercial venture.
But that’s not stopping the more adventurous from trying.
There is gold on the moon and nearby asteroids. And silver, titanium and an isotope known as Helium-3 that could be used in nuclear fusion. A trove of vast riches on a dead, gray landscape that Buzz Aldrin once described as “magnificent desolation.”
According to Congress, they are there for the taking. In 2015, it passed the Space Act, which, among other things, allows U.S. companies the right to the resources they mine in space.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who has been working to reduce regulations on the space industry, is one of the chief proponents of the theory that space, and in particular the moon, could be an economic engine, fueled by mining and other activities.
“Space is already a $340 billion business. We think it will be into the trillions within not a huge number of years,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post last year. “Space is the next truly huge frontier and a huge, huge opportunity for the United States.”
The resources on the moon are at or near the surface, scientists believe. The problem is an economic one. It is extremely expensive to get to the moon, and not easy to break free from Earth’s gravity.
To do that, rockets need an enormous amount of propellant. The Saturn V rocket that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon was a towering behemoth. At 363 feet, it was taller than the Statue of Liberty. But mostly, it was propellant. As it stood, fully fueled, on the launchpad, 85 percent of its mass was propellant. Same with the space shuttle. In fact, most rockets are shells to hold the fuel needed to generate the enormous energy to get to orbit. By contrast, only about 4 percent of a car’s mass is fuel.
To get to the moon and back, the Saturn V needed not just enough fuel to get to the moon, but also enough to get home.
Going to space is sort of like taking a trip across the country but without gas stations. You have to take all your fuel with you.
As it turns out, there is fuel on the moon in the form of water. Its elements, hydrogen and oxygen, can be used as rocket propellant, which is why many refer to water as “the oil of the solar system.” Water is a valuable resource that makes the moon “a gas station in the sky” and that “completely changes the economics” of accessing resources on the moon, said Robert D. Richards, the co-founder and CEO of Moon Express, which is developing lunar landers.
Whoever lays claim to the water at the poles of the moon could have an important advantage. That’s one of the reasons Bridenstine said NASA was moving with a sense of urgency.
“We have seen the immense amount of international interest in specific parts because it could be advantageous from a geostrategic perspective,” he said. “It’s in our interest to make sure that we’re represented there as well and as soon as possible.”
It’s not the first time corporations have gone starry eyed over the prospects of mining celestial bodies in space. Goldman Sachs wrote in a 2017 note for investors that “space mining could be more realistic than perceived” and that the use of water as fuel could be a “game changer.”
The U.S. company Planetary Resources promised it would be “the leading provider of resources for people and products in space through its goal of identifying, extracting and refining resources from near-Earth asteroids.”
For years, the leading contender to achieve that was Planetary Resources, backed by founder Larry Page, Eric Schmidt and James Cameron, the filmmaker. Then the funding dried up. The company started selling off all sorts of equipment, from 3-D printers to folding chairs. Late last year, the company was sold, ending a trajectory many viewed as a cautionary tale.
Then there was the Google Lunar X Prize. To help jump-start a commercial lunar industry, and free it from government, the contest offered a $20 million award to the team that could first land a spacecraft on the moon, travel up to 1,640 feet on the lunar surface and beam back live video.
Last year, the deadline for the contest came and went. Not one team made it to the moon.
And Google pulled the prize money.
NASA, however, is getting in on the moon rush, and putting even more money on the table.
The first act of the reconstituted National Space Council led by Vice President Pence was to declare a return to the moon in partnership with the private sector. NASA recently took a first step announcing nine companies that had been chosen to compete to fly science experiments to the lunar surface, with the goal of landing as soon as this year. At stake in what’s known as the Commercial Lunar Payloads program is $2.6 billion over 10 years.
In addition to those small landers, the space agency is looking for spacecraft capable of taking people to the surface as part of its plan to build what it calls the Gateway, a spaceship that would stay in orbit around the moon. In an announcement earlier in February, it called on space companies to build landers capable of flying astronauts to the surface by 2028.
It is the latest example of NASA helping to boost the private sector. Over the years, NASA and the Pentagon have invested billions of dollars into companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, helping them develop rockets to launch satellites and supplies to what’s known as low Earth orbit.
It is looking for public-private partnerships that will help it get to the moon. And with the NASA-funded moon programs, the private sector finally sees a revenue source that will help it close a business case.
Smaller companies that were competing in the Lunar X Prize are expected to bid. So are the bigger companies, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing and SpaceX. Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos, has also pitched its lunar lander design to NASA. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“It’s like trying to roll a big boulder up a hill, and I think we’re reaching that tipping point where it starts rolling downhill,” said John Thornton, the CEO of Astrobotic, a space-robotics firm based in Pittsburgh that was one of the X Prize contenders. “And the biggest signal of that is NASA getting involved.”