USA remains favourite to be first to return humans to the Moon…but only because of its privateers

It is at this time of year (well actually a little later than usual) when the Flightglobal/Ascend space team considers who is in the lead in the race to return astronauts to the Moon.  Last year, we did an analysis of what a nation needed to put its astronauts on the Moon and weighed up what each had and what each nation was lacking.   We came to the conclusion that five elements were needed:

1. A heavy-lift launch vehicle carrying 70 tonnes or more to low Earth orbit (LEO).

2. A manned capsule/service module and transfer stages for passage and return from lunar orbit.

3. A lunar landing/ascent craft to carry one or more astronauts to and from the lunar surface

4. Rendezvous, guidance and docking technology.

5. The political will and financial resources to develop the systems to accomplish this.

Following up from this and the notional odds we gave each nation in this “lunar race”, here we reassess each nation’s chances (and odds) for which will be first to make a manned landing back on the Moon.

USA remains favourite at 6-4 (unchanged from 2012)

At first sight NASA is well on the way to having a heavy lift launch vehicle which would be capable of putting major  manned missions onto the lunar surface (using two launches) or simpler Apollo-class exploration missions using just a single SLS vehicle.  USA and its NASA administration has a very promisting manned spacecraft in the sole survivor from Project Constellation: the Orion spacecraft, along with European help in making its service module. 

NASA however lacks other items that may yet make it lose the race.   NASA has no lunar lander: all work on the Altair lunar lander was stopped when Project Constellation was ended.  Worse, it does not appear to have the political will or financial resources such a mission happen.  The current Obama Administration along with NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden seem more intent on bringing back a “Moon” – actually a very small astreroid  – into the Earth-Moon system for astronauts to explore.  They appear to want to do this rather than actually land astonauts back on Earth’s current natural satellite. 

NASA is also cash strapped as the result of US government spending cutbacks.  It can only build one part of its long range exploration project at a time.  Thus while SLS is being built, it cannot afford to build a lunar lander. 

The Pumpkin concept developed by Northrop Grumman for Golden Spike uses only a very small ascent vehicle. Courtesy: Northrop Grumman

The Pumpkin concept developed by Northrop Grumman for Golden Spike uses only a very small ascent vehicle. Courtesy: Northrop Grumman

There is hope however.  While General Bolden has cold feet about actually going, some US private firms are developing their own ideas to land commercial manned spacecraft on the Moon. The US firm, Golden Spike, is the most advanced of these and has even commissioned Northrop Grumman, maker of the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), to design a new manned landing craft. The two-crew design dubbed Pumpkin that Northrop Grumman came up wiht makes the most of living space but has a very small ascent craft.   While it looks small and simple, if such a vehicle was built, this, in combination with SLS and Orion could actually let a NASA/private partnership mount an Apollo-class lunar landing mission.    Thus America may yet be first to return to the lunar surface in spite of Charlie Bolden rather than because of him.  

China remains second favourite at 5-2 (unchanged from 2012).

China has an avowed intent to land its astronauts (“taikonauts”) on the lunar surface, but has yet to start on its heavy lift launch vehicle – though it looks close to finalising its design using a Lox/kerosene core and booster with a Lox/liquid hydrogen powered upper stage.  With such a booster, LEO payloads in the 100-130 metric tones range have been mentioned, with a trans lunar injection payload capability of 48-50 metric tons.    Such a vehicle is roughly equivalent to the Saturn V of the Apollo era.

Nevertheless, while its space programme now has the poltical will and resources, it remains lacking in some elements.  It has no lander designs as yet. 

Likewise, while it is planning to land an unmanned rover as part of its Chang’e 3 mission to the Moon later this year, it still lacks USA’s expertise in lunar rendezvous operations that it will surely need, given that its launch vehicle is likely to be smaller and less powerful than the SLS.  Nevertheless, while China it appears to be behind,  its measured but relentless pace may let it win if USA falls by the wayside.

China displayed this model of a lunar astroanaut at the IAC 2013 Beijing

China displayed this model of a lunar astroanaut at the IAC 2013 Beijing

Russia drops to No 3 as its odds are slipping out to 4-1 (from 5/2 in 2012).

Russia still smarts over being beaten by USA to being first to land a man on the Moon in 1969.  The reason was that its N-1 Moon rocket was too unreliable to fly successfully.  Of course, some elements of this weird but wonderful rocket live on.  The N-1′s very efficient, if slightly too small NK-33 rocket engine fly on in a modified form (as the Aerojet AJ-26) on the Orbital Sciences’ Antares cargo launch vehicle.  The other Soviet era heavy lift venture, the Energia launch vehicle, which used a lot of Ukrainian technology, was powerful but was never fully developed and is now defunct. As such, Russia is still looking at heavy lift designs with which it can go forward.   Russia is, at least,  close to getting a spacecraft equivalent to Orion which which it can mount lunar missions.  Nevertheless, while President Putin has made space a top priority, without a landing craft and without starting a heavy lift launch vehicle soon, its chances of beating both USA and China are diminishing.

The Isle of Man’s odds are lengthening out to 33-1 (from 20-1 in 2012)

The Isle of Man has had a very quiet year.  This bizarrely small contender for the prize may yet the capabilty to move from low Earth orbit into lunar orbit via its domiciled firm Excalibur Almaz, assuming that it can get its electrically propelled transfer vehicle into orbit. It would still need to be launched by a third party and would need a lander to be designed.  As there has been little news of any progress its notional chance is reducing.

India, Japan and others are at 100-1 bar

While India and Japan still have hopes of having manned space capsules – they have no current plans for lunar landing missions.  As such, it would take a miracle for these two to take part in a lunar mission unless it is with one of the favourites.  The United Kingdom (believe it or not) remains a dark horse.  While its astronauts may take part in a NASA landing via its ESA links, it may yet one day get its own lunar capability.  It all depends on what happens to its Skylon reusable spaceplane research (note that the author has a small financial interest in this research). If this can be made to work (with ESA’s support) and reduce the cost of access into space then there is no end to the possibilities that the UK can achieve. Its odds stay at 300-1.  Iran remains a no hoper at 1000-1 as does South Korea.

With respect to Mars missions, assuming a privateer outfit such as SpaceX does not get there first, it looks much more likely now that a true “international mission” will be devised. And no doubt they will all have to draw straws to find out which nation gets to put its astronaut on the surface first.

2 Responses to USA remains favourite to be first to return humans to the Moon…but only because of its privateers

  1. gaetano marano 10 October, 2013 at 6:47 am #

    go back to the Moon do needs huge amounts of funds … and now China has much more cash than USA …

  2. Kalle 20 October, 2013 at 9:30 am #

    I sa some pictures of chinas chang’e 3 lander and I was supeised of its size, it seems way oversized for only the rover..
    I would not be suprized if this landes allso servs as a prof of consept to later be fitted with a small human pod (lts size seem to be close to that of “pumpkin consept” by northrup grumman)
    China might still suprise us

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