Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Race to Develop the Moon

 
 
For science, profit, and pride, China, the U.S., 
and private companies are hunting for resources on the lunar surface.
 
In January, the China National Space Administration landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, the side we can’t see from Earth. Chang’e-4 was named for a goddess in Chinese mythology, who lives on the moon for reasons connected to her husband’s problematic immortality drink. The story has many versions. In one, Chang’e has been banished to the moon for elixir theft and turned into an ugly toad. In another, she has saved humanity from a tyrannical emperor by stealing the drink. In many versions, she is a luminous beauty and has as a companion a pure-white rabbit.
Chang’e-4 is the first vehicle to alight on the far side of the moon. From that side, the moon blocks radio communication with Earth, which makes landing difficult, and the surface there is craggy and rough, with a mountain taller than anything on Earth. Older geologies are exposed, from which billions of years of history can be deduced. Chang’e-4 landed in a nearly four-mile-deep hole that was formed when an ancient meteor crashed into the moon—one of the largest known impact craters in our solar system.
You may have watched the near-operatic progress of Chang’e-4’s graceful landing. Or the uncannily cute robotic amblings of the lander’s companion, the Yutu-2 rover, named for the moon goddess’s white rabbit. You may have read that, aboard the lander, seeds germinated (cotton, rapeseed, and potato; the Chinese are also trying to grow a flowering plant known as mouse-ear cress), and that the rover survived the fourteen-day lunar night, when temperatures drop to negative two hundred and seventy degrees Fahrenheit. Chang’e-4 is a step in China’s long-term plan to build a base on the moon, a goal toward which the country has rapidly been advancing since it first orbited the moon, in 2007.
If you missed the Chinese mission, maybe it’s because you were focussed on the remarkably inexpensive spacecraft from SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit organization, which crash-landed into the moon on April 11th, soon after taking a selfie while hovering above the lunar surface. The crash was not the original plan, and SpaceIL has already announced its intention of going to the moon again. But maybe you weren’t paying attention to SpaceIL, either, because you were anticipating India’s Chandrayaan-2 moon lander, expected to take off later this year. Or you were waiting for Japan’s first lunar-lander-and-rover mission, scheduled to take place next year. Perhaps you’ve been distracted by the announcement, in January, on the night of the super blood wolf moon, that the European Space Agency plans to mine lunar ice by 2025. Or by Vice-President Mike Pence’s statement, in March, that the United States intends “to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years.”
Fifty years ago, three men journeyed from a small Florida peninsula to a dry crater some two hundred and forty thousand miles away called the Sea of Tranquillity. Hundreds of millions of people watched on black-and-white TVs as a man from Wapakoneta, Ohio, climbed slowly down a short ladder and reported in a steady voice that his footprint had depressed the soil only a fraction of an inch, that “the surface appears to be very fine-grained as you get close to it, it’s almost like a powder down there, it’s very fine.”
Shortly before NASA launched Apollo 11, it received a letter from the Union of Persian Storytellers, begging NASA to change the plan: a moon landing would rob the world of its illusions, and rob the union’s members of their livelihood. During the spacecraft’s flight, the Mission Control Center, in Houston, asked the crew to look out for Chang’e, and for her bunny, too. Houston said that the bunny would be “easy to spot, since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree.” Buzz Aldrin responded, “We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.”
“The moon is hot again,” Jack Burns, the director of the NASA-funded Network for Exploration and Space Science, told me. NESS’s headquarters are at the University of Colorado Boulder, which has educated nineteen astronauts. (Boulder was also the setting for the television sitcom “Mork & Mindy,” in which Robin Williams played an alien from the planet Ork.) Part of NESS’s mission is to dream up experiments to be done on the moon. An informational poster at the entrance reads “Challenges of Measuring Cosmic Dawn with the 21-cm Sky-Averaged, Global Signal.” In the decades since Apollo 11, NASA has invented Earth-mapping satellites, launched the Hubble Space Telescope, collaborated on the International Space Station, and studied Mars. But none of these projects have generated the broad and childlike wonder of the moon.
Burns, who is sixty-six years old, remembers the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions—the Cold War-era efforts, beginning in the late fifties, that put men in space and finally landed them on the moon. He teaches a course on the history of space policy. “The U.S. had already lost the start of the space race,” he said, of the origins of Apollo. “The Soviet Union was first with a satellite in space. They were first with an astronaut in space.” Yuri Gagarin’s journey into outer space took place in April, 1961. President John F. Kennedy delivered his moon-shot speech the following month, and Congress eventually allocated 4.4 per cent of the national budget to NASA. “But, if you live by political motivations, you die by political motivations,” Burns said. “Apollo died. Nixon killed the program.” Only twelve people have walked on the moon, all of them between the summer of 1969 and Christmas, 1972. All the moonwalkers were men, all were American, all but one were Boy Scouts, and almost all listened to country-and-Western music on their way to the moon; they earned eight dollars a day, minus a fee for a bed on the spacecraft. Since the last moonwalk, humans have launched crafts that have orbited the moon, crashed probes into it, and taken increasingly detailed photos of it. But no one has been back.
The planetary scientist Bruce Hapke, who has a yellowish, opaque lunar mineral—hapkeite—named for him, said, “Almost every President since Nixon proposed going back to the moon.” (President Obama focussed instead on studying an asteroid near Earth and working toward the distant goal of sending astronauts to Mars.) “But the money was never allotted. Congress decided we couldn’t have guns and the moon at the same time.” The Department of Defense’s budget is now nearly seven hundred billion dollars, whereas NASA’s funding is $21.5 billion, or around half of one per cent of the national budget. The U.S. is still believed to spend more on space programs than the rest of the world combined. (China’s budget, however, is unknown.) Hapke said, “The trouble is, there was always some kind of emergency, always some war going on. Though that Cold War mentality also got us to the moon.”
Hapke recalls being told by several scientists and NASA employees that, “when the moon landing was first conceived, it was a strictly political stunt: go to the moon, plant the flag, and come back to Earth.” The original design of the spacecraft allotted little to no room for scientific payloads. “When the scientific community got wind of this, they pointed out strongly to NASA all the fantastic science that could be done, and the whole tone of the project was changed,” he said. Hapke was then at Cornell, where he and his lab mates studied what the lunar soil might be like; the moon’s characteristic reflectivity helped them deduce that the surface must be a fine dust. For Hapke, the Apollo era remains the most exciting time in his scientific life. He also recalls “the widespread puzzlement in both Congress and the general populace after the first landing: ‘We beat the Russians. Why are we going back?’ ”
Burns said, “This time we need a more sustainable set of goals and reasons” for going to the moon. He meant a science mission, or a business mission, or both. “We don’t like to say we’re going back to the moon,” but forward, he added. “Our objectives are different. Our technology is different. Apollo had five kilobytes of RAM. Your iPhone is millions of times more powerful.” Watching the footage of Neil Armstrong’s first steps, it takes a moment for one’s eyes to make sense of the low-resolution image, which could easily be overexposed film or a Robert Motherwell painting. “It’s amazing they made it.”
Burns told me that advances in engineering could turn the moon into a way station for launching rockets and satellites farther into the solar system, to Mars and beyond. (The weak gravity on the moon dramatically eases launches.) Lunar construction projects now look feasible. “Down the hall, we have a telerobotics lab,” Burns said. “You could print components of habitats, of telescopes. You use the lunar regolith”—the dust of the moon—“as your printing material. You could print the wrench you need to fix something.” Fifteen years ago, the moon was believed to be a dry rock; now we know that there’s water there. Both private industry and national agencies regard the mining of water and precious materials as something that’s not too far off. There’s space tourism, too, though the quiet consensus among scientists seems to be that the idea is goofy and impractical.
NASA would like to establish a permanent presence on the moon, using reusable rockets and landers. The agency is working on the largest, strongest, fastest—of course—rocket yet, but it plans to purchase other equipment, including rockets and landers, off the shelf, from commercial companies. Bob Jacobs, a spokesperson for NASA, told me, “Eighty-five per cent of NASA’s budget is for commercial contracts. We build what only we can build; the other services we look to purchase from approved venders.”
Burns likens this de-facto government support of commercial space exploration to the dawn of the airline industry: “In the nineteen-twenties, early airline companies survived only because the government paid them to deliver the mail.” It wasn’t until later, when ordinary people became aeronauts, that the airline industry became economically viable. “I think we’re looking at something similar with space exploration,” Burns said.
There are also more emotionally leveraged business models, like that of Celestis, a funeral-services company, which puts cremains into space, and has plans to take them to the moon. The Japanese beverage Pocari Sweat wants to be the first sports drink on the moon. Its manufacturer has booked a spot on a lunar lander developed by a Pittsburgh-based company, Astrobotic, which is scheduled to launch in 2021, and to land in the Lacus Mortis—the Lake of Death, which is actually a dry, flat area. Pocari Sweat employees have collected stories of children’s dreams from across Asia and etched them onto titanium plates. The plates will be put inside a capsule designed to look like a Pocari Sweat can, and will travel with some Pocari Sweat powder that will one day—so the plan goes—be mixed with moon water.
Even in fantasy, space ventures have always mingled idealistic and worldly motives. H. G. Wells published “The First Men in the Moon” in 1901. The novel’s narrator, Mr. Bedford, wants to make money. His collaborator, Mr. Cavor, dreams of knowledge. Together they go to the moon. When they encounter moon dwellers—“compact, bristling” creatures, “having much of the quality of a complicated insect”—Bedford wants to destroy them; Cavor wants to learn from them. Bedford finds gold, and embarks “upon an argument to show the infinite benefits our arrival would confer upon the moon,” involving himself “in a rather difficult proof that the arrival of Columbus was, on the whole, beneficial to America.” Cavor is indifferent to the gold—it’s a familiar mineral. Moon dwellers capture and chain Bedford and Cavor, then march them underground. Cavor assumes that there must be other, less brutal moon dwellers, as enlightened and knowledge-loving as he. In the end, Bedford makes it back to Earth. Cavor is presumed dead. But no one with a heart reads the novel and wants to be Bedford.
Burns grew up in Shirley, Massachusetts. Neither of his parents graduated from high school. From the age of five, he knew that he wanted to study the stars. When I asked him what he hopes to see on the moon, he became suddenly boyish: “I’d love to set up a low-frequency radio telescope on the far side of the moon, free from the interference of Earth signals. It could see to the beginnings of time. And the far side of the moon has craters there that were formed during the Late Heavy Bombardment, four billion years ago.” During the Late Heavy Bombardment, large numbers of meteors crashed into the inner solar system. The period coincides roughly—and perhaps not coincidentally—with the beginnings of life on Earth. Burns said, “Earth was also bombarded, but here that history has been erased or buried by weather, erosion. On the moon, it’s still right there on the surface. It’s a history book. I’d like to read that book.”
The night I met with Burns was the eve of a supermoon—when the moon is both full and as close to Earth as it gets. I walked over to the Sommers-Bausch Observatory, not far from Burns’s office; there was a bunny in the bushes, trying not to be noticed. Carla Johns, who operates the observatory’s telescopes, met me in the hallway, which is lit in red, to keep your eyes adapted to the dark. On the top floor, she pressed a button, and the roof noisily rolled back. There it was, with all its starry friends. Johns explained how the telescopes worked—they are essentially buckets of light. She said that children often shout when they see the moon so close.
Johns showed me a collection of small telescopes, and discussed the eighteenth-century French astronomer Charles Messier. “Back then, the way astronomers made money was finding comets and telling kings they had a comet to name after them,” she said. When Messier was eleven, his father died, and afterward he received no formal schooling. But he developed an exceptional gift for finding comets. “To find those comets, he documented everything he could see in the sky,” Johns said. “Once he was sure a sky object wasn’t a comet, it was of no interest to him. Some of that stuff he found turned out to be Andromeda, and the Crab Nebula.” She showed me a large telescope on a mount developed by John Dobson, a chemist by training, who worked briefly on the Manhattan Project, then resolved to spend the rest of his life as a monk. While living at a monastery in San Francisco, he would walk the shipyards, gathering old porthole glass to fashion into homemade telescopes, which he would share with others in sidewalk astronomy lectures. “The monks eventually asked him to leave,” Johns said.
Johns became a telescope operator relatively late in her professional life. She had worked in human resources, and enjoyed it, but at a difficult moment she found herself at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where her parents used to take her as a child. “I looked through the telescope and I began to cry,” she said. She had always loved science, but had chosen another career because of family and financial issues. “I said to myself, ‘I need to be involved with this.’ ”
Shortly before the turnoff for the town of Mojave, California, there were train cars along the right side of the road, painted old-fashioned black and standing still. On the left were hundreds of white wind turbines, spinning. Soon I came to a slightly weathered sign for the Mojave Air and Space Port—“Imagination Flies Here”—which features a picture of a young boy holding a toy plane. You’re allowed to launch rockets here; you’re allowed to fly objects beyond the atmosphere. A number of aerospace firms have offices at the port.
In November, 2018, NASA named nine companies to be part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program: if NASA wants to send something to the moon, these companies are approved to provide transportation. “FedEx to space,” I was told to think of it. “Or DHL.” Some of them are large and well known, like Lockheed Martin Space. Masten Space Systems has sixteen employees. It is based at the Air and Space Port, down the road from Virgin Galactic, in offices that resemble the extra building my elementary school put in the playground when enrollment exceeded capacity. When Masten won a NASA-funded prize—for vertical takeoff and precision landing in conditions simulating those of the moon—it had five employees. Its winning rocket, Xoie, looks like a slim, silvery water tower, only ninety inches tall—two stacked spheres on a tripod, with tanks of helium on the sides.
“Our focus is on reusable rockets,” Masten’s C.E.O., Sean Mahoney, told me. “We have a rocket that has flown two hundred and twenty-seven times. We want space to be affordable.” Masten plans to begin taking payloads to the moon in 2021: “Mostly science payloads, mostly NASA. Some commercial.” Among the items that NASA wants to send are a solar-power cell and a navigation device that the agency will test in lunar conditions.
Mahoney and I talked over a meal at the Voyager Restaurant, on the grounds of the spaceport. The Voyager looks like Mel’s Diner, from the TV show “Alice.” (A lot about lunar exploration reminded me of old television shows, especially “Bonanza.”) I had a grilled-cheese sandwich—spaceport food. Mahoney said, “There’s the PBS version of space, which is beautiful. And that is real. But, also, space—well, you’ve heard of the military-industrial complex? Space is an offshoot of that.” Something shiny and fleet was taking off in the distance, and the windows shook. Mahoney pointed out a tumbleweed blowing across the lot. “I’m a business guy by background, not a space guy, so I had to learn all of this,” he said. Mahoney believes that, because the space industry was a government-sanctioned monopoly for decades, there was no room for risk, or for competition; the fear of failure dominated. “Lockheed Martin and Boeing could charge exorbitant prices,” he said. “As a business person, when you see a fat margin—when you see a service that can be provided much more cheaply—you see value.”
We walked through strong winds to the hangars where Masten does its manufacturing. There were none of the vacuum chambers and clean white rooms that one associates with rocket science. Instead, there were trailer beds loaded with rocket parts for testing; there were purple-and-yellow long-sleeved T-shirts for launch days. There were tanks of helium, wrenches of every size. A young man wearing an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University sweatshirt and a welding mask was making an engine casing.

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