April 14, 2014 – Unlike the United States which has chosen to rest on its Apollo Program laurels, Russia is reviving the Soviet dream to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon. The United States, however, has made it quite clear that it has no plans to return to the Moon unless it does it conjointly with other partners. Instead the Americans will look at asteroids as short-term Deep Space objective with Mars as its long term mission.
Hard on the heels of excising the Crimea from Ukraine, spokespersons for the Russian government are talking about an entirely different future conquest. In the last week on the Voice of Russia the Deputy Defense Minister in charge of Roscosmos described the Moon as one of the country’s top priorities. Russia’s commitment to space is reflected in its investment in a new spaceport. Vostochny Cosmodrome is located north of the Amur River in the far-eastern reaches of Siberia (see map below). With its opening Russia will launch from its own soil rather than from Baikonur in the neighboring republic of Kazakhstan, formerly part of the Soviet Union.
The initial Russian plan looks at missions from now to 2025. What’s involved? The design and launch of a modular spacecraft system and heavy-lift rocket carrier represents the next big investment. The planned spacecraft will be 14 metric tons on launch to low-Earth orbit. An additional 6 tons of modules will be added for lunar missions.The heavy launch rocket will have a payload capacity of 80 metric tons. The image below compares current Soyuz launch vehicles seen at the top with those planned for this ambitious new stage in Russia’s space program.
In parallel Russia will build and launch a series of robotic lunar explorers including two new rovers and one orbiter. Luna-25, a rover, will target the Moon’s south pole and will be launched in 2016. It will be followed by an orbiter in 2018 and a second polar lander in 2019. The rovers will search for water ice in deep polar craters. The plan is to operate them for up to five years and give them the capability to travel as much as 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from their landing sites.
Russia will follow these unmanned missions with a series of human space flights aimed at building and completing a permanent Moon base during the decade of the 2030s. The Russian human presence on the Moon will focus on harvesting lunar resources and testing and designing new space technology for future Deep Space missions. In the recent announcement Russia indicated that its Deep Space goals are exploration and space resource development within the Solar System and beyond.
For Russia the Moon is the logical next step in the human exploration and conquest of space. The Moon becomes the test bed for developing closed system habitations that could eventually be placed on Earth Solar System destinations like Mars. Russia still has Mars on its drawing board but sees the Moon as the necessary first step.
The Russians are critical of the American decision not to return to the Moon. They see this as a mistake and an opportunity for them. And so do the Chinese who plan to make the Moon their primary goal for future spaceflight. Russia and China aren’t the only ones in this race. India, too, has ambitions to land future astronauts on the Moon. And it is probably a good bet that Europe and others will also see the Moon as a human spaceflight objective. So this second Moon race will have the United States sitting on the sidelines while Russia, China, India and others claim the high ground on our nearest Solar System neighbor.