NASA’s new grand space race plan
THE US is feeling left behind and has a new plan to get to the moon.
"Our wish is to fly this year," NASA official Thomas Zurbuchen said at the surprise announcement of a new Moon mission overnight. "We want to incentivise speed … We want to start taking shots on goal."
While the media presentation focused on the need for speed, it didn't divulge the why.
But US President Donald Trump has been touting a grand vision of a triumphant return to the Lunar surface - and the establishment of a permanent base there.
"For us, if we have any wish, we'd like to fly this calendar year," he said. "We do not expect every launch and landing to be successful."
Like similar announcements by predecessor presidents about spectacular - but speculative - missions to Mars, the follow-through for a new Moon shot has so far been largely lacking.
Meanwhile, China late last year placed a probe and lander in one of the Moon's most significant features - the unexplored South Pole-Aitken basin. It's the biggest known impact structure in the solar system, and it is suspected of containing reserves of water ice and the rare isotope helium-3, both of which could fuel a colony and further space exploration.
HOWLING AT THE MOON
NASA has largely been living off the successes of space projects launched up to a decade ago - including the now 'dead' Mars Opportunity rover. It hopes to launch its first manned space flight since the demise of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.
It's been relying on the Russians to get its crew to the International Space Station ever since.
Earlier this year, China scored the first successful sprouting of plants from seeds during the ongoing Chang'e-4 mission which placed the first ever probe on the far side of the Moon.
India is also in the race. Its first attempt to launch last year was delayed. But it has a probe ready to go as soon as its rocket is ready.
Other projects, including a private mission from a now defunct Google competition and an Israeli probe, are also set to go.
But now the Trump administration appears to be determined to get a new Moon project off the ground. And it's eager to pay private companies to carry its cargoes.
NASA has been considering the prospect of a 'Lunar Gateway' space station placed in orbit around the Moon, acting as a stopover point for missions to the surface and, perhaps, Mars.
But, first, NASA needs to know more about the Moon itself.
So, next week, it will be announcing the winners from contenders seeking to build rockets, landers and sampling and testing equipment for a surface mission.
NASA will also reveal where they intend to put the robotic probe, though it is most likely to stake out a claim on the same south polar region China and India are exploring.
Zurbuchen again emphasised NASA's plans to "incentivise" speed through cash: the first companies to deliver payloads to the Moon's surface will win healthy bonuses.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said he intended to have a contract signed for the mission by July (the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo lunar landings).
"We want to strike a balance between getting to the Moon as fast as possible while also, when we get to the Moon, we're there to stay," Bridenstine told media. "This is the big vision."
Like China, the probe is intended to pave the way for a future manned mission.
NASA documents indicate the earliest date for an American to tread the lunar surface again is 2028. Uncrewed testbed missions are planned for 2024 and 2026 to put new technologies through their paces.