The space race of today?

23 June 2016

Interview with

Professor Ian Crawford, Birkbeck College, University of London

Are we racing to the Moon? Who are the contenders? And why the Moon over Fly me to the moonMars? Graihagh Jackson put her many questions to Ian Crawford...

Ian - There is a lot of renewed interest in exploring the moon. I'm not sure it's a race, perhaps it is at some level, but it's certainly true that newly emerging space powers, if you may call them that (China and India), have quite ambitious proposals to send spacecraft off to the moon and, in fact, both countries have already done so but they've got plans for more. I think part of this is geopolitical in the sense they want to demonstrate they've got this capability of sending things to the moon so they can join the major space parallels like America, and Russia, and Europe. Part of it is science driven though.

There's a recognition that, 40 years after Apollo, there's a recognition that we've still got a lot to learn about the moon. And then looking further ahead there's a realisation that the moon may have resources economically, raw materials that are valuable and might, therefore, be economically worth exploiting. So we don't really know the extent yet to which the moon might be economically valuable but this is, of course, another reason for wanting to explore it further so we can find out if it's got anything useful or not. So I think all of these things together really are driving the renewed interest in the moon.

Graihagh - What do you mean when you say geopolitical drivers?

Ian - In space exploration there are two geopolitical drivers. One is kind of a less optimistic driver. It's a bit like the cold war where countries are trying to compete or, at least, demonstrate they've got capabilities to try and aggrandise themselves on the world stage. But there is a more positive geopolitical driver and that's the collaborative aspect, that there's a realisation that space exploration is quite expensive to do. Individual countries probably can't do all they want to do on their own and this provides a stage, if you will, for nations to collaborate which is beneficial because nations may be at each other's throats in different other areas of their relations. But if they've got a few areas where they can collaborate and be seen to be collaborating, this can help build bridges between nations. There's one that already exists of course. I mean one of the reasons the International Space Station exists was a recognition, certainly in the U.S. congress, that by having Russia on board and other countries on board, it could help build bridges in the wake of the cold war.

Graihagh - So where are we up to today because I often think about it? Is it the jade rabbit, the Chinese probe isn't it? And then I think about the Russians talking about how they want to build a space taxi from the International Space Station over to the moon, so where are we at and who's doing what?

Ian - So China is quite active. I mean China did have their Changi 3 lander on the moon and that was a tremendous achievement but, yes, they have plans for several more and they're slowly but surely progressing that. The Russians also have proposals to send spacecraft to the moon in the next 5 or 10 years. In a sense, so does everybody but what's not quite clear is how realistic they all are. Some of this quite a lot of talk; some areas we can actually see stuff happening. Stuff is actually happening in China and so it's a bit difficult to know.

I am familiar with several Russian proposals that would have unmanned spacecraft land on the moon. Probably around the south pole of the moon, which is an area of some interest to lots of people at the moment.

Graihagh - So why is there this interest in the south pole - is there something there?

Ian - Yes. No spacecraft has ever visited the poles of the moon, north or south. Evidence has been growing over the last 10 or 15 years, that water ice is collecting in the bottom of these craters. If this is true, then this will be a very useful resource because, if we want to explore the moon further or explore elsewhere in the solar system, then water is a very useful material because you need it for life support t drink and everything. But, of course, you can break it up into oxygen and hydrogen so you can breath the oxygen or you can combine the oxygen with hydrogen as a rocket fuel. It's got multiple applications in space exploration but it's very heavy. I cubic metre of water weighs a ton of course, and if you've got to keep lifting water of the surface of the earth in ginormous rockets to use in space, this will make the cost of space exploration much higher that it would be if you had a local source of water. So yes, a lot of interest in exploring the lunar poles is to assess if this water is really there and, if so, how much is there.

Graihagh - And is there anything else on the moon that people perhaps talk about exploiting and using as a resource to help explore us explore say Mars and the rest of the solar system?

Ian - Certainly the moon has other things. It has metal, aluminium, titanium, silicon that you might use for solar cells. Exploiting these materials and manufacturing useful things out of them on the moon is, obviously, quite a long way ahead but, nevertheless, the moon does have these materials.

Something that people talk about on the moon as an economically useful resource is this helium 3 story, and there is an argument that helium 3 could be used for nuclear fusion power stations on the earth to provide our future electricity. Now I'm not myself an advocate of this for reasons I can explain if you want me to. I mean helium 3 is present on the moon, it comes to the moon on the solar wind and is implanted into the lunar soil. But no-one has yet demonstrated that helium 3 is a viable fuel for nuclear fusion reaction, so we don't actually know if we could use it. And even if we could use it actually, there's not all that much there anyway and so to get enough to provide electricity for the earth you'd be need enormous operations, strip mining of hundreds or thousands of square kilometers of the moon's surface every year. And so probably there's an easier way to solve the earth's long term energy requirements than mining lunar helium .

Graihagh - Yes I imagine so, and this mining problem is, I guess, because it all streams the surface and it's not concentrated in areas like we might think of mining metals and things on earth. But would it then be a good way to explore the rest of our solar system rather than dragging it back down to earth and using it as a fuel?

Ian - Nuclear power spacecraft... yes this would be very enabling, right.  If you had a spacecraft that took only three weeks to get to Mars instead of 8 months, which is what current is taken, or could get you to the moons of Jupiter in a few weeks or month instead of years. Obviously, this would greatly open up the solar system and this would require new powered rockets of some kind. Now we're certainly not in a position to build one yet. I suppose it is true in the quite distant future, if you were able to build a nuclear fusion powered rocket, this would be a very enabling thing and if lunar helium 3 would be a potential fuel for such a thing, then yes that's an exciting but quite niche market, providing nuclear rockets to explore the solar system or maybe even beyond. So it's in the context of trying to provide all of earth's energy from lunar helium 3 that it becomes implausible. The amount you'd need to power a rocket would be much less and so then yes, it could become attractive in that context.

Graihagh - So paint me a picture of what's going to be happening in the next 10, 15, 20 30 years even. Are we going to be seeing more and more probes? Are we going to be seeing humans return to the moon perhaps 50, 60, 70, 80 years after the Apollo landings?

Ian - Well I certainly so. So the way I see it panning out, and the good news is from my point of view, this is what's essentially envisaged in the global exploration roadmap which means this is the way the space agency are thinking is after the ISA, return humans to the moon. Use human presence on the moon to of course learn a lot about the moon, it's geology and everything - a lot of science to do. But also develop human spaceflight capability that once we're confident that we know how to explore space with humans using the moon as a testbed, then to use that as a stepping stone literally and figuratively. A stepping stone that would take us to Mars and elsewhere.

So I hope that's the way space exploration pans out in the 21st century.

Graihagh - Would you volunteer yourself to go?

Ian - So I would have done, so I might still but I'm afraid in 2030 I'll probably be well past it, unfortunately. I mean I think, in a sense, there's been several lost generations post Apollo. There are people of a certain age like me who when they were 9 or 10 watching Apollo happen, thought this was the future, right, and yet it didn't actually happen for us  but I hope it can happen for the younger generation. People like Tim Peake inspired a lot of people so what's Tim Peake's next mission going to be? Maybe it won't happen quite soon enough for him to have a chance of going to the Moon, but some of the young people he's inspired. I think this is what we have to hope that the space program ramps up to a level that many of the people who are school age now, that people like Tim Peake have inspired, can realistically hope that they might have a small but finite chance of going to the Moon or Mars.

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