The Lunar Space Race, Explained
The race to the moon is back on, and this time it’s not just between two superpowers. With the addition of India as a major player in lunar exploration, the competition to establish dominance in space has intensified. The US, China, and India have all launched ambitious missions to the moon in recent years, each hoping to advance scientific knowledge and secure a strategic foothold on the lunar surface. In this article, we will explore the current state of the lunar space race and assess how each country is doing in their respective missions.
The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was a defining conflict of the mid-20th century. This geopolitical tension was fueled by an arms race and the growing threat of nuclear weapons, widespread espionage and counter-espionage, war in Korea, and a clash of ideologies carried out in the media. The competition extended to the space race, with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 igniting a race to put a man on the moon. Space exploration was seen as a new frontier in the American tradition of exploration and a crucial arena for demonstrating national strength. This led to the creation of NASA, as well as two classified programs, one for exploiting the military potential of space, and the other for gathering intelligence on the Soviet Union and its allies. The competition continued to heat up with Yuri Gagarin’s orbit of the Earth in 1961 and President John F. Kennedy’s public claim that the U.S. would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade, leading to the establishment of NASA’s lunar landing program, Project Apollo. Now, several countries look to head back to the moon, and a renewed interest has grown.
Half a century after the first manned mission to the moon, the U.S. has launched a new space exploration program, Artemis, to compete with China’s space ambitions. The program, which is a successor to the Apollo program, aims to send humans back to the moon and eventually to Mars. The first rocket of the Artemis program was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying the Orion capsule on an unmanned journey around the moon and back. The program consists of three phases, with the third mission expected to land astronauts, including the first woman, on the moon by 2025. NASA’s partners include space agencies from Japan and Europe, and it has also encouraged competition between private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. The Artemis program is expected to cost $93 billion from 2012 to 2025, significantly less than the Apollo program’s estimated cost of $150 billion in today’s dollars.
China is set to launch its Chang’e 5 robot mission, named after the Chinese moon goddess, with the goal of collecting approximately 2kg of lunar rocks and bringing them back to Earth. The mission will involve complex docking and maneuvering in orbit, unlike the simpler direct return method used by the Soviet Union’s 1976 Luna 24 mission. China has made significant advancements in space exploration, including landing a lunar rover, a probe on the far side of the moon, and collecting soil samples from the moon. The U.S. sees China’s advancements as a potential national security threat and has restricted their access to U.S. technology.
According to the head of India’s space agency, S. Somanath, the launch of Chandrayaan 3, India’s second attempt at landing a spacecraft on the moon, may be delayed until 2023. The lunar lander is currently in the assembly phase, but testing of vital systems, including the propulsion system, is still ongoing. The previous mission, Chandrayaan 2, experienced a hard landing due to a loss of control over the spacecraft’s thrust, and adjustments have been made to avoid a similar incident. The Chandrayaan 3 mission will include a new lander and a rover, but not an orbiter, and will target a near-polar landing area. Meanwhile, the Gaganyaan crewed mission is progressing, with the first set of hardware delivered to ISRO and testing of mission-abort sequences scheduled for August and December. The first crewed launch attempt may now occur in 2024, with test flights expected in 2023 if the abort tests are successful.
The US, China, and India are all making significant strides in their missions to explore the moon. While the US remains the clear leader in lunar exploration, China and India are quickly catching up, with both countries launching increasingly ambitious missions in recent years. With each country investing heavily in space technology and infrastructure, it seems that the race to the moon is far from over. As we look towards the future of lunar exploration, it will be exciting to see what new discoveries and advancements each country will bring to this important field.
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