The moon disappeared from NASA’s radar screen in January 2010, when the Obama White House canceled the Bush-era Constellation program and its plan to return to the lunar surface by 2020. The space agency today is focused on privatizing cargo and astronaut transport to the International Space Station, then sending explorers to nearby asteroids in the late 2020s. But the moon just won’t go away. Our nearest cosmic companion keeps popping up in discussions of where robots—and humans—should head next in space.
In the last 10 years, the U.S., Japan, Europe, India, and China have resumed the robotic exploration of the moon. Both China and Japan have expressed interest in returning human explorers there, with China announcing late last year a series of technological steps leading to a manned lunar mission.
Just this week, NASA itself unveiled a robot to prospect for lunar water ice and oxygen. (As I noted this week, tapping those kinds of resources could be a bonanza for future explorers by drastically reducing mission costs or supplying life-support needs at an astronaut outpost.) The Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction, or RESOLVE, is a four-wheeled drill rig, the size of a golf cart. Once safely on the moon, RESOLVE will drill for the ice deposits already spotted from orbiting sensors, and process lunar rocks and soil to release oxygen. RESOLVE will start field trials in July on lava beds outside Hilo, Hawaii.
But while NASA is thinking about lunar robots, Russia is thinking bigger. At the Global Space Exploration Conference (GLEX) in Washington last month, Russian space agency head Vladimir Popovkin confirmed that Russia has long-range plans to send cosmonauts to the moon. “We’re not talking about repeating what mankind achieved 40 years ago,” he said. “We’re talking about establishing permanent bases.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard Russia’s space agency talk about a moon base. In March, a leaked technology road map document from Roscosmos (that nation’s federal space agency) suggested that the country could establish a cosmonaut outpost there soon after 2025. Speaking in April 2011 on the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first orbital flight, then-prime minister Vladimir Putin said, “Russia should not limit itself to the role of an international space ferryman. We need to increase our presence on the global space market.”
Russian interest in the moon goes back half a century or more. Locked in a Cold War space race with the U.S., Russia was first to image the lunar far side, first to send a probe to strike the moon, first to soft-land a robot spacecraft there, and the first to return a robot sampling spacecraft from the lunar surface. But by the mid-1970s, having lost the manned moon race to Apollo and running short of cash, the Soviets left the lunar arena.
Now, though, Russia is looking back to the moon as a way to remain a major player in space. Putin’s “ferryman” comment refers to the fact that Russia provides all the crew transportation to the ISS, and will do so for the next five years. But its transport monopoly could end by 2017, when the U.S. hopes to restore its own astronaut launch capability. …
Yes, that’s the Russian flag, the white blue and red. The Soviet flag is no more. It has been gone for more than 20 years.
Polish news anchor Piotr Krasko has publicly apologized for his station mistakenly showing the Soviet flag during a report about the Polish-Russian soccer match at the Euro 2012 tournament. The graphic of the flag with the hammer and sickle appeared during a report on a news show on June 13 on TVP1, one day after Polish and Russian fans clashed in Warsaw. Krasko said the Soviet flag graphic was prepared for a report about previous matches between the Soviet Union and Poland. Krasko said it was an “unintentional mistake and at the worst possible moment.”
Russia has been using a tri-colored flag for more than 20 years.