In an exercise in uchronia, the series produced by Apple For All Mankind (2019) imagine a world where the Soviet Union was, during the Cold War, the first power in the world to send a man to the moon. The installation of two lunar bases by the two rival superpowers follows, in a frenzied competition. This production comes at a time when several powers have embarked on a new race to conquer the Moon.
In 2019, fifty years after the Apollo 11 mission which saw the first men land on the Moon, the United States indeed announced their intention to return there in 2024. In the era of new space, this new spatial ambition reflects not only a more intense geostrategic competition, marked in particular by the rise of China, but also the advent of a more economic dimension of the conquest of space.
The American-led Artemis program
Emblem of this revival, the Artemis program is an international consortium around the United States. Beyond 21 states currently signatories to the Artemis Accords, including France is part, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) signed in June 2022 a cooperation agreement around Artemis. Each participant contributes to this mission by bringing an element to the "puzzle" developed by NASA.
The 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 following a budget cut in 2021, NASA decided to award a contract only to SpaceX to transform its Starship vehicle into a lander, and new budget discussions are underway to possibly choose a second contractor.
In Japan, the Toyota group has partnered with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to offer a prototype lunar vehicle, manned and pressurized, in order to participate in future missions of the international program.
The program is to take place in three phases. First, the January 2022 launch of the unmanned flight Artemis I. Next, NASA is considering a manned flight, Artemis II, with the goal of positioning the spacecraft in orbit around the Moon in 2024. Finally, Artemis III should landing the HLS lunar module with two astronauts on board in 2025.
The Sino-Russian and Indian programs
If Artemis is causing a stir within the space community, China is also proposing, for its part, a very ambitious program. Landing of China's Chang'e-4 lander on the far side of the Moon in January 2019, a world first, demonstrates the spectacular progress of the People's Republic in this area. During the summer of 2020, the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) recalled the country's intention to establish from 2036 a international science station on the moon (ILRS). Even before the deployment of the latter, China intends to carry out human missions on the Moon at the beginning of the next decade. It also wishes to attract international partners to this station, the installation of which is scheduled at the South Pole.
This program was joined by Russia in 2021. ; while following the war in Ukraine, the relations between the Russian agency Roscosmos and NASA and the ESA are called into question, in particular around the International Space Station (ISS) and the exploration of Mars. It cannot be said, however, that all relations are interrupted.
Finally, India appears as another serious candidate to accomplish a lunar mission. If the Indian space program does not envisage, for the moment, the construction of a lunar base, it prepares its astronauts for a mission to the moon. However, important failures, such as the mission Chandrayaan-2 where the probe was destroyed at the time of its landing, slow down its development. As an extension of its program Gaganyaan, the Indian organization for space research (Isro) has planned to develop rockets powerful enough to allow travel to the moon. However, this will not occur until the next decade.
Settle on the Moon, for what?
What factors explain this renewed enthusiasm for the lunar conquest?
First of all, the natural satellite of the Earth appears as a necessary passage in the perspective of a future manned mission for Mars. In other words, it represents a launching pad allowing to consume less fuel from a lunar starting point or in orbit. It would thus facilitate manned missions to other points of the solar system. In addition, certains believe that the Moon could serve as a training ground for astronauts to establish a permanent human presence over the long term, as in Antarctica with winterings of nine months. Likewise, lunar missions would lead to the testing of numerous items of equipment, such as manned vehicles or those linked 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 changes Terms of Access. For the time being, these projects remain on the order of science fiction.
Another argument invoked: the presence of resources on the Moon would justify the sustainable establishment of a human presence. Although no one is really aware of the possibility and profitability of hypothetical mining activities on lunar soil, some interest groups like planetary society argue the significant presence of resources that promote such an enterprise. The resources in question are mainly water and helium-3.
On the one hand, in recent years, discoveries have indicated significant water deposits in the solid state in the large craters permanently located at the poles of the Moon, in the shadow of the Sun. Thus, in a multitude of microcraters, 60% of the deposits would be located in the South Pole as recent studies revealed it. Although no one dares to give precise estimates, certains advance a volume of water of between 100 million and one billion tonnes for each of the poles.
As such, the choice of NASA to install the future lunar base in this region of the Moon accredits the hypothesis of an extraction of this essential resource to sustain a human presence. For now, however, beyond confirming the presence of water ice, determining its morphology, concentration, distribution and abundance remains essential, because the energy cost of its extraction depends on its nature. These data determine the realization of a sustainable human presence and the execution of a plan for the exploitation of the resource.
On the other hand, the selene soil contains significant reserves of helium-3 (3He), the volume of which represents nearly 2,5 million tonnes according to Russian researchers. This non-radioactive isotope, rare on Earth, could potentially be used as fuel for nuclear reactors. nuclear fusion. But such reactors do not yet exist, and few people venture to predict when they will come. Very hypothetical to date, the very long-term use of helium-3 would require designing a profitable extraction method with an adequate infrastructure, and being able to carry out transport to Earth.
In addition, mining raises major legal issues when the United States has not signed, like China and Russia, the treatise on the moon (1979). On April 6, 2020, President Donald Trump released a Executive order in which the United States does not view outer space as a "global common good". The United States wishes to use the resources present, including those of the Moon.
Finally, NASA unveiled in its program Artemis architecture LunaNet, which aims to develop a data transfer network similar to the one in place 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 when solar flares occur using space weather instruments. Completed by positioning, navigation and dating services, this architecture would secure human activities on the Moon.
The limits of a pharaonic project
Returning to the Moon involves significant budgetary efforts as the consequences of 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 secured until 2024, with an amount of $ 28 billion, of which 16 billion exclusively devoted to the lunar landing module. Each year, the budget will be subject to 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 that of Apollo. In the 1960s, the United States was seeking to assert its status as a superpower, and the program, from its inception, had enjoyed bipartisan political support. The current program initiated by NASA, very expensive, depends on the support of Congress and on long-term American political developments. Therefore, this program requires for its realization a lasting political anchoring, which China has succeeded in establishing since 2003 with its Programs bylunar exploration.
In addition to financial uncertainties, there are technical and logistical obstacles that hinder the possible realization of the various projects envisaged, starting with those related to mining. Despite the grandiose ambitions, the lack of existing infrastructure complicates the definition of concrete, achievable action plans.
In the early 2010s, a speculative bubble formed regarding asteroid mining. This allowed, in 2016, the Luxembourg company Planetary Resources to obtain a pledge of $ 50 million from private investors after a round of funding for this ambitious project. However, the money from this fundraiser never arrived, and the business model of this start-up did not resist. In 2018, ConsenSys, a company specializing in blockchain, acquires this company and gradually reduces sensational projects. For the Moon, a similar call for air now exists with the American company Moon Express who raised $ 65,5 million to conduct commercial flights. Japanese society space raised $ 122,2 million for resources there.
Do these breakthroughs among private investors represent a speculative bubble or are they part of a very long-term strategy in which their contributions would become essential for space agencies?