Humans return to the Moon: Artemis, figurehead of a global competition

In an alternate history exercise, the Apple-produced series for all humanity (2019) imagines a world where the Soviet Union would have been, during the Cold War, the first power in the world to send a man to the moon. It follows the installation of two moon bases by the two rival superpowers, in frantic competition. This production comes at a time when various powers are engaged in a new race to conquer the Moon.

In 2019, fifty years after the Apollo 11 mission that saw the first men land on the Moon, the United States actually announced its intention to return there in 2024. In the New Space era, this new space ambition reflects not just geostrategic competition , marked above all by the rise of China’s power, but also by the advent of a more economic dimension of the conquest of space.

The American-led Artemis program

Emblem of this renaissance, the Artemis program is an international consortium around the United States. In addition to the 21 states currently signatories to the Artemis Agreements, of which France is a member, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) signed a cooperation agreement around Artemis in June 2022. Each participant contributes to this mission by bringing an element for the “puzzle” developed by NASA.

States also make extensive use of the private sector to carry out their projects. Initial plans for the development of a human lunar lander (Human Landing System, HLS) involved three private companies: Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX. But after a budget cut in 2021, NASA decided to award a SpaceX-only contract to turn its Starship vehicle into a lander, and further budget discussions are underway to possibly choose a second contractor.

In Japan, the Toyota group has joined forces with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to offer a prototype pressurized manned lunar rover to participate in future missions of the international program.

The program must take place in three phases. First, the January 2022 launch of the ArtemisI unmanned flight. Next, NASA is considering a manned spaceflight, ArtemisII, with the aim of placing the rover in orbit around the Moon in 2024. Finally, ArtemisIII is expected to land the lunar module HLS with two astronauts on board in 2025.

Sino-Russian and Indian programs

If Artemis is causing a stir in the space community, China is also proposing a very ambitious program. The landing of the Chinese Chang’e-4 probe on the far side of the Moon in January 2019, for the first time in the world, demonstrates the People’s Republic’s spectacular progress in this area. During the summer of 2020, the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) recalled the country’s intention to establish from 2036 an International Scientific Station on the Moon (ILRS). Even before the deployment of the latter, China intends to carry out human missions to the Moon at the beginning of the next decade. It also wants to attract international partners to this station, which is planned to be installed at the South Pole.

This program was joined by Russia in 2021; following the war in Ukraine, relations between the Russian agency Roscosmos and NASA and ESA are called into question, particularly around the International Space Station (ISS) and the exploration of Mars. It cannot be said, however, that all relationships are interrupted.

Finally, India appears as another serious candidate to fulfill a lunar mission. If the Indian space program does not foresee, for the time being, the construction of a lunar base, it is preparing its astronauts for a mission to the Moon. However, major flaws, such as the Chandrayaan-2 mission, where the probe was destroyed when it landed on the moon, hampered its development. As an extension of its Gaganyaan program, the Indian organization for space research (Isro) planned to develop rockets powerful enough to enable a trip to the Moon. However, this will not occur until the next decade.

To settle on the Moon, for what?

What factors explain this renewed enthusiasm for lunar conquest?

Firstly, the Earth’s natural satellite appears as a necessary passage in the perspective of a future manned mission to Mars. In other words, it represents a launch pad that allows you to consume less fuel from a lunar or orbital starting point. Thus, it would facilitate manned missions to other points in the solar system. Additionally, some believe the Moon could serve as a training ground for astronauts to establish a long-term permanent human presence, such as in Antarctica, with nine-month winter periods. Likewise, lunar missions would lead to tests of numerous equipment, such as manned vehicles or vehicles attached to a permanent base. However, the differences that exist between planetary environments limit the validity of this hypothesis. Mars, unlike the Moon, has an atmosphere that alters access conditions. For now, these projects remain in the realm of science fiction.

Minerals on the Moon, studied thanks to Apollo missions and satellite images. NASA/GSFC/USGS

Another argument invoked: the presence of resources on the Moon would justify the permanent establishment of a human presence. While no one really knows the possibility and profitability of hypothetical mining activities on lunar soil, certain interest groups such as the Planetary Society advance the significant presence of resources that support such an undertaking. The resources in question are essentially water and helium-3.

On the one hand, discoveries in recent years have indicated large deposits of solid-state water in large craters permanently located at the Moon’s poles, in the shadow of the Sun. Thus, in a multitude of microcraters, 60% of the deposits would be located at the South Pole, as recent studies have revealed. Although nobody dares to give precise estimates, some propose a volume of water between 100 million and a billion tons for each of the poles.

As such, NASA’s choice to install the future lunar base in this region of the Moon supports the hypothesis of an extraction of this essential resource to sustain the human presence. For now, however, in addition to confirming the presence of water ice, determining its morphology, concentration, distribution and abundance remains essential, as the energy cost of its extraction depends on its nature. This data determines the achievement of a sustainable human presence and the execution of a resource exploitation plan.

On the other hand, the selenic soil would hide significant reserves of helium-3 (3He), whose volume would represent about 2.5 million tons, according to Russian researchers. This non-radioactive isotope, rare on Earth, could be used as fuel for nuclear fusion reactors. But such reactors do not yet exist, and few people venture to make predictions about the time of their advent. Very hypothetical so far, the very long-term use of helium-3 would require designing a cost-effective extraction mode with adequate infrastructure and being able to transport it to Earth.

In addition, mining raises major legal issues, as the United States did not, like China and Russia, sign the Moon Treaty (1979). On April 6, 2020, President Donald Trump issued an executive order in which the United States does not consider outer space a “global commons”. The United States wants to use present resources, including those on the Moon.

Finally, NASA revealed in its Artemis program the LunaNet architecture, which aims to develop a data transfer network similar to that existing on Earth. This device would facilitate the transfer of data between the Earth and the Moon, which would notably make it possible to alert astronauts in real time during the occurrence of solar flares by means of space meteorological instruments. Complemented by positioning, navigation and dating services, this architecture would guarantee human activities on the Moon.

The limits of a pharaonic project

Returning to the Moon involves significant budgetary efforts, as the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic could permanently weaken world economies. For the space sector, its medium-term effects remain unpredictable. NASA’s 2021-2025 budget for the Artemis program is guaranteed until 2024, with a value of 28 billion dollars, of which 16 billion dedicated exclusively to the lunar lander. Each year, the budget will be the subject of negotiation between NASA, the federal government and Congress. At this time, the 2024 budget has been approved by the US Congress and confirms support for the Artemis project.

Politically, this program differs from Apollo’s. In the 1960s, the United States sought to assert its superpower status, and the program from the beginning enjoyed bipartisan political support. The current program initiated by NASA is very expensive and depends on congressional support and long-term US policy developments. Consequently, this program requires a lasting political anchorage for its realization, which China has managed to establish since 2003 with its lunar exploration program.

In addition to the financial uncertainties, there are technical and logistical obstacles that make it difficult to carry out the various projects planned, starting with those related to mining. Despite grandiose ambitions, the absence of existing infrastructure complicates the definition of concrete action plans that can be implemented.

In early 2010, a speculative bubble formed regarding asteroid mining. This allowed, in 2016, the Luxembourg company Planetary Resources obtain a pledge of 50 million dollars from private investors after a funding round for this ambitious project. However, the money from this fundraiser never arrived, and the start-up’s business model didn’t hold up. In 2018, ConsenSys, a company specializing in blockchain, bought this company and gradually reduced the sensational projects. For the Moon, there is now a similar call for air with the American company Moon Express that raised 65.5 million dollars to carry out commercial flights. Japanese company Ispace has raised $122.2 million to explore the resources there.

Do these advances among private investors represent a speculative bubble or are they part of a very long-term strategy in which their contributions would become indispensable to space agencies?

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The conversation

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