Earth is back in the business of sending humans to the moon. Remarkably, there is a significant interest coming from both the public and private sectors — this kind of attention is reminiscent of the space race of the 1960s. With Elon Musk at the helm of the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), the SpaceX Starship is one of the private ventures keen on sending humans to the moon and even Mars. Will it work? At this point, that matters far less than the fact that we’re taking a step in the direction of actually trying!
(We’ll start worrying about it working when we get the phase where astronauts have to get strapped into these things.)
Unveiling the SpaceX Starship
The new SpaceX Starship Architecture was unveiled last September 28, in time for the 11th anniversary of the launch of Falcon 1—Space X’s first successful orbital launch in 2008. The towering Starship Mk1 stands as a backdrop. Amid a windy evening at the company’s testing center in Boca Chica, Texas, the visionary CEO shared the developments of the interplanetary mission set to launch for a lunar flyby in the year 2023. Additionally, Musk reiterated the goal of the company to propel humans to be a spacefaring civilization. He emphasized that to achieve this objective, the use of a rapidly reusable orbital rocket is necessary. He further adds: “The critical breakthrough for us to be a spacefaring civilization is to make space travel like air travel.”
Indeed, there is a renewed interest in sending humans back to the moon. With the developments in aeronautics and space engineering technology— such as the SpaceX Starship —humanity is faced with a choice. Are we ready to become a multi-planetary species? Or should we just accept our earthbound fate?
Why We Stopped Flying to the Moon
On December 17, 1972, Commander Eugene A. Cernan of the Apollo 17 mission was the last human to walk on the lunar surface. The Apollo 17 mission possesses invaluable significance, but it is often eclipsed by the fact that it was the last mission to the moon. Notably, Apollo 17 was the first mission to include a scientist. The objective of the mission was to conduct a geological survey, perform surface experiments and in-flight tests, and accomplish photographic tasks. With the amount of data gathered about Earth’s nearest space neighbor, the Apollo 17 mission was groundbreaking. It could have paved the way for more missions and an in-depth assessment of the possibility of a lunar base.
However, due to a change in priorities—the establishment of a Skylab—Apollo 17 became the last lunar probe project, and subsequent missions were inevitably canceled. For the next three decades, funding for space projects was allocated to cooperative international programs, such as Mars Pathfinder, the International Space Station, and Curiosity.
The Race to the Moon and Beyond
SpaceX Starship is not alone in the quest to send humans to the outer space. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is another thriving private-funded space venture. The company is hard at work, picking up government space mission contracts and private-funded projects to build a road to space. The revival of the lunar exploration project and establishment of private space ventures such as the SpaceX Starship and Blue Origin was a direct result of the NASA Authorization Act of 2005. Under this act, it says: “The Administrator shall establish a program to develop a sustained human presence on the moon… to promote exploration, science, and commerce and United States preeminence in space.”
Outside the U.S., countries—such as Russia, China, and Japan—and the European Space Agency (ESA) are all fervent participants of the new space race. With pressure to create headway, ESA aims to establish a moon base within 25 years. On the other hand, China is on track to send manned lunar missions by the year 2030. In January 2019, China’s Chang’e 4 landed on the far side of the moon. The mission’s rover, Yutu, has been successfully deployed and has been sending data to Earth via the communication relay satellite Queqiao.
Dipping our Toes in the Vast Ocean of Space
Making space travel available for more people is a great leap towards understanding the space beyond our planet. Thus, lunar missions like the one expected from the SpaceX Starship are highly anticipated. The moon is the earth’s closest interstellar neighbor, and this fact makes the moon an ideal testing ground for future space exploration. Notably, establishing a base on the moon can help us prepare for what we can do later.
Can humans be an interplanetary race? We are not sure. While there is no guarantee, we should at least try. Humans have looked up to the sky for thousands of years, enthralled by the vast ocean of space before us. It’s time to dip our toes in the water.