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Kaguya lunar image
Japanese Kaguya spacecraft image of the Moon (credit: JAXA)

Exploding Moon myths: or why there’s no race to our nearest neighbor

Germany recently announced that they possibly, maybe, might launch a robotic spacecraft to the Moon. That now brings to six the number of countries with spacecraft at the Moon in development to go to the Moon, or at the very least thinking about sending a spacecraft to the Moon. The others are: China, Japan, India, the United States, and the Russians (who have lots of plans, along with an official motto: “Please send money.”)

Just what the heck is going on?

The lay press, which has only a superficial understanding of space issues, has taken notice of all this space activity and struggled to understand it. They have reached for explanations, and in the process produced several erroneous theories based upon poor understanding both of what is currently happening, and what has happened in the past regarding exploration of the Moon. These Moon Myths include:

  • These countries are involved in a “space race” to the Moon.
  • China, Japan, and India are engaged in an “Asian space race.”
  • The scientific community is newly interested in the Moon and driving these efforts.
  • There must be something on the Moon that all these countries want—helium-3, other resources, or extraterrestrials.
  • These robotic missions are precursors to something bigger, such as human missions.

There is practically no truth to any of these myths, but they have appeared in numerous articles and, more often, in television news segments. They are worth exploring, if only to shed a little more light on what is currently going on.

The lay press, which has only a superficial understanding of space issues, has taken notice of all this space activity and struggled to understand it.

Recently China’s Chang’e-1 spacecraft entered lunar orbit. It followed the Japanese Kaguya mission. (Kaguya is the Japanese nickname for the satellite, which was previously named “Selene,” after a Greek lunar deity.) Those two missions are currently in orbit. However, a European Space Agency spacecraft named SMART-1 was there a few years ago, slowly spiraling down to a deliberate impact with the surface last year. The Indians plan on launching their Chandrayaan spacecraft next year. The United States will launch its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter next year as well. In addition, Russia has announced plans for a lunar mission known as Luna-Glob and scheduled for launch in 2012, but their plans are tentative at best.

Assuming that the Japanese and Chinese spacecraft are still operating a year from now, lunar orbit is going to get pretty crowded. This confuses the press, who look for big picture explanations for all this interest. Here are the myths deconstructed.

A “space race” to the Moon

This is the most common myth about all the new lunar activity. That’s not surprising considering that it’s the easiest explanation and the one that reporters are most familiar with—they think that they understand space races. All that activity must be due to competition, right? It must be because all of these countries are struggling to get to the Moon first, or best, or some other competitive goal.

But it’s not really true. If you look at the stated reasons for each of these missions and apply a little filtering and some knowledge of space policy and technical capabilities, it becomes obvious that the actual explanation is much less exciting: many of these missions are happening because these countries have recently acquired the capability to go beyond Earth orbit, and the Moon is the closest—and therefore easiest—target beyond Earth orbit. That’s it. It’s that simple.

There are of course other targets beyond Earth orbit, including Mars, Venus, near Earth objects (i.e. asteroids), and comets. But these are generally out of reach for less mature space powers. The European Space Agency, which is quite mature, has mounted missions to Mars, Venus, and a comet—but no lunar missions other than SMART-1. Japan has also mounted a mission to an asteroid. But those missions require more resources and capabilities than the Moon, such as access to deep space communications and better navigation. So for countries like China and India, the Moon is an easy first step beyond low Earth orbit, but essentially their gateway to more ambitious missions beyond the Moon.

Many of these missions are happening because these countries have recently acquired the capability to go beyond Earth orbit, and the Moon is the closest—and therefore easiest—target beyond Earth orbit. That’s it.

Many of the current plans for exploring the Moon were developed with little regard to what other countries are doing, and certainly not in response to them. In fact, that’s part of the problem; there’s little coordination between the participants when coordination might produce complementary data instead of redundant data. But there is some cooperation. The Indian spacecraft, for instance, will carry American and European instruments. The Russian spacecraft, if it gets built, may carry Japanese impactors intended for Lunar-A. The relevant space agencies are planning, or at least discussing, sharing their data. This is not a “space race” by any definition.

An “Asian space race”

Of course, three of these countries are Asian, leading many in the press to talk about an “Asian space race,” even if they have no data to back it up. There is no Asian space race, and just because three Asian countries are sending missions to the Moon does not mean that they are racing each other there.

Japan first launched a lunar mission in 1990. That mission had a string of bad luck. An Earth-orbiting satellite named Hiten deployed a small spacecraft named Hagoromo, which failed to reach lunar orbit. The Japanese then sent Hiten on a slow trip to the Moon, but it lacked sophisticated instruments or an imager, and has been largely forgotten. Throughout the 1990s the Japanese space agency worked on a more sophisticated follow-on spacecraft called Lunar-A, which suffered from numerous managerial and technical problems and was finally canceled early this year. Had Lunar-A not run into problems, then Japan’s lunar program would have appeared much more methodical, with regular, if infrequent, lunar probes starting seventeen years ago. Instead, the press has misinterpreted Japan’s long, if low-key, interest in the Moon as a reaction to China.

Similarly, the fact that China and India have lunar spacecraft does not represent a race between them, but the fact that their economies and technical capabilities are recently emerging. Their respective governments want to demonstrate to their own people, and also the rest of the world, that they have sophisticated capabilities, “technonationalism,” to borrow a phrase from space analyst Joan Johnson-Freese. But they’re not “racing” each other, and there is every indication that they would be pursuing the same policy even if their Asian counterpart was not.

Renewed scientific interest in the Moon

This is a little more complicated. There is renewed scientific interest in the Moon, but it is not driving these missions. Politics, both domestic and international, is driving these new efforts and because these countries have decided to send spacecraft to the Moon, their respective scientists are naturally interested in conducting science there.

The obverse of this argument is the theory that there is nothing of scientific interest on the Moon—Apollo answered it all—and therefore the current interest is all political, i.e. a space race. But this too is based upon a mistaken assumption. It is common for lay journalists with little understanding of space policy (Gregg Easterbrook comes to mind—he wrote this in a January 2004 blog posting) to claim that there is so little of scientific interest on the Moon that NASA abandoned it for decades.

There is renewed scientific interest in the Moon, but it is not driving these missions.

That’s a terribly superficial explanation for why there was such a long gap in between lunar missions—26 years from Apollo to Lunar Prospector, or 22 years from Apollo 17 to the Department of Defense Clementine mission. The reality is more complex, and mundane. The United States spent a tremendous amount of money on Apollo and returned a tremendous amount of scientific data from the Moon—despite the fact that Apollo was never about science. That data was investigated and analyzed and churned and debated and, like all scientific data, raised even more questions. Some members of the press and the public even labeled Apollo a “scientific failure” because it did not definitively answer questions about the Moon’s origins. (Newsflash: despite tens of thousands of geologists crawling all over the surface of the Earth for, well, centuries, there remain many unanswered questions about Earth’s geology as well. That’s the way science works: often the answer to one question is a half dozen more complicated questions.)

The problem for lunar scientists was that Apollo had cost so much that it exhausted both the decision makers at the top of the agency and the larger scientific community, which was clamoring for its own big ticket items. You lunar scientists have had your chance, they said, it’s time to spend finite dollars on other targets.

But it was not that there was no longer important science to conduct at the Moon, instead, the cost-benefit equation for lunar science had an added component, the Apollo legacy. Legitimate lunar science questions existed, but could not overcome the Apollo legacy. Gradually all those lunar scientists dispersed to other disciplines and other questions, primarily those concerning Mars, a bigger rock with big mysteries of its own.

This highlights the fact that space science priorities are not set by a computer; they are established by humans, in a social context. Human biases, emotions, and even history all affect those priorities. Unsurprisingly, this happens not only with the Moon, but with other space sciences as well. Consider the long delay between Mars missions—Mars Observer was not launched until 1992, seventeen years after the Viking missions. Was this long delay because of little scientific interest in Mars? No. It was due to many factors, including delays in the Space Shuttle program. But it was also due to the fact that Viking had been extremely expensive, and had raised expectations so high (they were hoping to find life on Mars, and didn’t) that Mars advocates had a difficult time building a coalition to pursue another mission for a very long time. There’s an unfortunate lesson based on history: if you’re going to spend a lot of money on something, you better get a positive result, or it will be much harder to argue for additional funding in the future.

Resources (or little green men)

Another common myth, popular among more left-leaning non-American publications, is that all these missions are part of a “lunar gold rush.” Some of this stems from a conspiratorial suspicion about American government motivations—journalists who believe that the United States invaded Iraq to seize oil are just as likely to suspect that the United States is going to send people to the Moon to grab resources there. They then spin off conspiracy theories about Halliburton or lunar property claims. The most commonly cited lunar resource is the isotope helium-3, which Americans supposedly want to burn in their numerous fusion reactors. This theory is sometimes fueled by the statements of Chinese and Russian and even Indian officials, who claim that they are sending robots to the Moon to look for the helium-3 that the Americans supposedly covet so much. (Proof that dubious claims supporting space exploration are universal.)

It’s no secret that delusions are more satisfying than reality, but these theories are outlandish. Nobody who pushes them has bothered to check even basic facts or ask simple questions. For starters, if the United States is truly interested in helium-3 for fusion power, how come the American government is spending so little money on fusion research? Fusion research budgets were slashed after the Cold War, and have been anemic ever since, in effect demonstrating what little faith the US government has in the potential of fusion power. (This raises a corollary for space enthusiasts: if you really believe that the Moon has potential as a source of fusion power, you should support dramatic increases in the Department of Energy’s budget for fusion research, possibly even taking the money from space exploration to fund it.)

If you really believe that the Moon has potential as a source of fusion power, you should support dramatic increases in the Department of Energy’s budget for fusion research, possibly even taking the money from space exploration to fund it.

There is a humorous offshoot of this theory. Richard Hoagland, who achieved fame and notoriety in the 1980s by claiming that the “Face on Mars” was evidence of extraterrestrial life, has claimed that there are giant extraterrestrial structures on the surface of the Moon—and that’s why so many countries are sending spacecraft there. Of course, none of these countries have said that this is why they are launching these missions. But the lack of evidence has never stopped Hoagland before, so why should it do so now?

Human missions

Naturally, all these robotic missions have led to press speculation that they are simply precursors to human missions to the Moon. But there is only one country with declared ambitions to send humans to the Moon, the United States. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is clearly designed to support the human lunar program, and its primary mission is to return high resolution maps of the lunar surface for planning operations for humans. No other country—not Germany, India, Russia, Japan or China—has intentions of sending humans to the Moon. Russia has discussed the possibility of tourist missions around the Moon (remember their motto: “Please send money.”). India has announced preliminary plans to launch a human spacecraft in perhaps ten years, and recently at the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) conference in India some of their officials mused that they might like to send humans to the Moon—someday.

China is more complicated, however.

As Jim Oberg, a well-known and longtime observer of the Soviet and Russian space programs has noted, today we know far more publically about what the Chinese space plans are than we ever did about what the Soviet plans were during the Cold War. The Chinese release photographs and video of their spacecraft, talk about them at conferences and special events (see “China, competition, and cooperation”, The Space Review, April 10, 2006), and even produce PowerPoint slides on their future plans. They have made clear that their lunar robotic plans include an orbiter in 2007, a soft landing in 2012, and lunar sample return in 2017. Their human plans are slightly more obscure, but Chinese officials have stated that their goal is to conduct a spacewalk in 2008, a rendezvous perhaps by 2010, followed eventually by a small space station by 2015. They have also stated that they have no plans for landing humans on the Moon in the next decade, but might begin thinking about it only after they have conducted a sample return mission by 2017.

After Chang’e was launched, Chinese officials were even more blunt. In its November 5 issue Aviation Week & Space Technology quoted several Chinese space officials emphatically denying that they have any manned lunar plans, and all noting that China lacks the technology or the expertise to undertake such a mission. This was borne out by a peculiar observation made by a lot of people at the recent IAF conference in India: virtually no Chinese space officials showed up despite the fact that China is located right next door to India. When one of the few who did show was queried about it, he said that virtually everybody was involved with the Chang’e launch and could not attend. Certainly the launch was important to China, but so is showing off to the rest of the world at space conferences, and their lack of attendance is consistent with what the officials told Aviation Week: the Chinese simply don’t have the depth of technical experience to do much more than they are doing already.

Of course, they could be lying. But why should they? Or more precisely, why should they tell the truth about the rest of their civil space program and lie about this? Chinese officials prefer secrecy and obfuscation to baldfaced lies. They keep their military space plans secret, but they talk about their space exploration efforts quite a lot. And so far their statements concerning space exploration have been consistent with their actions, so allegations of deception require a higher standard of proof than simply a gut instinct.

Furthermore, there’s been no indication that they are lying about their lunar plans. High resolution commercial reconnaissance satellites overfly China every day. Where’s the evidence of Chinese construction of lunar rocket launch facilities, or the kinds of test facilities they will require for a lunar lander? All of the media reports that China is planning on sending humans to the Moon are based upon flimsy evidence that, when traced back to its source, quickly falls apart due to poor translation or misunderstanding of Chinese comments. For example, several years ago it was common for media sources—Agence France Press was the worst—to assume that Chinese discussions of plans for “lunar sample return” in 2017 meant “human lunar landing” in 2017. They didn’t. Members of the media claiming that China has plans for sending humans to the Moon need better evidence than their own sloppy past articles.

It’s all happening on the Moon

The recent press coverage of Germany’s possible interest in the Moon is yet another demonstration of how the press can get it wrong about this subject. To be fair, the article itself was pretty clear: the German government did not announce an actual lunar program, even if Reuters chose the misleading and awkward headline “Germany Plans Unmanned Lunar Orbit.” (How does one plan a “lunar orbit” anyway?) A senior government official merely acknowledged that the German aerospace agency was submitting a plan for a Lunar Exploration Orbiter to the government leadership for approval. The German government long ago gutted its space program following reunification in order to divert money to rebuilding the former East Germany—in some ways putting German aerospace in the same situation as emerging space powers like China and India.

The Chinese lack of attendance at the recent IAF conference is consistent with what officials told Aviation Week: the Chinese simply don’t have the depth of technical experience to do much more than they are doing already.

But Germany’s recent announcement was not a complete surprise to close observers of international space programs. A German company recently completed a government-funded study of a potential planetary exploration program called Mona-Lisa which includes both lunar orbiters and landers. So clearly somebody in the German government was thinking about changing course and possibly reinvigorating their space program.

Whether the German government wants to truly revive its moribund space program remains an open question. But the German parliamentary official stated why he thinks Germany should do this and it has nothing to do with a space race (Asian or Aryan), resources, or humans, although he said it would be “useful” for scientific research. “It is,” he said, “a chance for Germany to prove its competence in this area.”

India, China, and Japan have all said that same thing. It’s too bad that often the press prefers their myths to the facts.

A brochure on the Mona-Lisa study can be found here. The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Paolo Ulivi.