Lunar landings: India at the Moon's south pole

Do political motivations still play as much of a role as scientific ones...
29 August 2023

Interview with 

Richard Hollingham, Space Boffins


Apollo astronaut on the Moon


Many nations, of course, are still interested in the Moon. Last week, we reported on Russia’s first lunar mission in decades. It ended in failure after its craft crashed into the Moon’s surface. But there’s been much happier news for India - which has just made history becoming the first nation to land near the Moon's south pole. Chris spoke with science journalist, author and BBC presenter, Richard Hollingham. He's also the host of the Space Boffins Podcast...

Richard - Remarkably, the first landing on the Moon was in 1959. It was the Soviet Union. Luna 2 crashed into the Moon in 1959. The first soft landing on the Moon - so coming down gently, which is what we saw with the Indian lander - was Luna 9. Again, the Soviet Union in 1966. Today, Russia would say they were Russian missions - they were not. They were Soviet missions. And in fact, the man behind them was Ukrainian: Sergei Korolev. The Soviet Union seemed to have the edge until about the mid sixties when you started seeing the Apollo missions. And we've heard in recent days about how the far side of the Moon is sort of broken up; mountainous and cratered - very different to what we see in the night sky. And that first became apparent when astronauts looked down on the Moon for the first time in December 1968, on Apollo 8. And I actually have been fortunate enough to interview the commander of that mission, Frank Borman. Like a lot of these people, he still gets emotional when he describes how broken up, how extraordinary this area of the Moon looks. And then, as you mentioned, Apollo 11. The last human stepped on the moon in December 1972. That was Apollo 17. And now, suddenly, We're getting back into this excitement about the Moon with the Chinese rover in 2019. And now the Indian rover, the fourth nation to soft land on the Moon.

Chris - And what's underpinning all that? Suddenly it's as though there's a rush of interest. Why now?

Richard - Well, sadly, the world is not run by scientists and things are not done always for scientific objectives. There is a political element to this, as you might well imagine. There is also fundamentally a taxpayer that foots the bill for these sorts of things. So, as you heard, there's lots of scientific imperatives to go back to the Moon. But it's also about the future of humanity. It's about moving beyond the earth. And so you could say we landed on the Moon too soon in the sixties because it was an absolute race to get there - purely politically motivated. And then the science came along after that. So now there's the science, but there's also politics. But there's also something bigger than that, which is using the Moon as a stepping stone to exploration beyond. And perhaps now we're doing things in the right order at the right time.

Chris - Why are India and China really thrusting ahead on this? Do they see that as their goal to have first past the post advantage? Let's get there first and secure that as the launchpad for the next big thing.

Richard - I can't speak for China, but I would say there's certainly a political element to this. There was a political element to Russia suddenly launching this mission, Luna 25, which had been originally planned for two years ago. So there was a political element to that. Of course, there's scientific cooperation on top of that. I think what's remarkable about the Indian launcher is that it's the new way of doing things in space. It's done so much cheaper. They've done it quickly. It's maybe a new way to do this. And in that respect, India is definitely in the lead here. But it will be really interesting. I would put my money on the US putting astronauts first on the Moon next, but China won't be far behind.

Chris - And just briefly on that last point, where are we on the timeline? Because have they not suffered a bit of a setback in terms of when they originally planned to put people back on the Moon? Is there going to be a delay?

Richard - We'll have Artemis 2, which will be the mission around the Moon. That will either happen in 2024 or 2025. The problem with landing people on the Moon is the lander. That's being provided by SpaceX, and it's looking like it's behind schedule. So it's going to be by 2030. But I wouldn't want to say sooner than that necessarily.

Chris - You're obviously not a betting man, Richard, thanks very much.


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