LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Fifty years ago this month, NASA’s Apollo 11 mission transformed the idea of putting people on the moon from science fiction to historical fact. Not much has changed on the moon since Apollo, but if the visions floated by leading space scientists from the U.S., Europe, Russia and China come to pass, your grandchildren might be firing up lunar barbecues in 2069.
“Definitely in 50 years, there will be more tourism on the moon,” Anatoli Petrukovich, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Institute, said here today during the World Conference of Science Journalists. “The moon will just look like a resort, as a backyard for grilling some meat or whatever else.”
Wu Ji, former director general of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Space Science Center, agreed that moon tourism could well be a thing in 2069.
“People will go there for space holidays, and come back,” Wu said. “The staff of the hotel will work there. So that will be permanent human habitability on the moon in 50 years.”
“Robotic staff?” Petrukovich asked.
“No, not necessarily,” Wu answered.
Today’s session in Lausanne, titled “The Moon and Beyond,” provided a status report on international space cooperation as well as speculative glimpses at the next 50 years of space exploration.
Petrukovich and Wu were joined in their flights of fancy by Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters; David Parker, the European Space Agency’s director of human and robotic exploration; and Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator who now serves as CEO of the nonprofit Earthrise Alliance.
Bacik in the 1960s, the U.S. and Soviet space programs were driven by a Cold War race to the moon — and some high-ranking officials already see a second space race looming. ““We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher,” Vice President Mike Pence said in May when he announced that the United States would aim to put astronauts on the moon by 2024.
But at today’s session, space scientists played down the prospects for a ’60s-style space race. “It’s not a race,” Petrukovich said, “but you see, political figures are like kids in a kindergarten. … Either nobody wants it, or everybody wants it. So it is a kind of race, but in this race, everybody is helping the neighbor.”
Both Zurbuchen and Parker took advantage of the session to highlight their latest moves in space cooperation, including partnerships with commercial and academic space ventures.
Zurbuchen touted this week’s announcement about 12 lunar experiments — including Astrobotic’s MoonRanger rover and Texas Tech University’s dirt-drilling LISTER probe — that would be put aboard commercial lunar landers in years to come. (LISTER is an acronym that also pays tribute to the late Clive Lister, a University of Washington professor who made important contributions to the study of heat flow through Earth’s ocean floors.)
Parker announced that ESA’s 22 member states have authorized the agency to ask European companies for cost-specific proposals relating to the International Habitation Module for the moon-orbiting Gateway space platform that’s due to take shape in the 2020s, plus an Earth Return Orbiter that would bring samples back from Mars.
Later in the day, Zurbuchen said in a tweet that he and Parker signed a joint statement of intent relating to science benefits from that sample return mission.
What about China? Today, U.S. law places heavy restrictions on space cooperation with Beijing — but Wu made clear that he hoped that stance would soften in the years ahead.
He explained that China’s solar-powered Chang’e-4 probe and its Yutu 2 rover can operate on the far side of the moon for only two weeks out of every month, due to the lunar night. “We hope that U.S. technology can send a nuclear power station there, and then people can work in the lunar night,” he said.
In return, Wu said China was willing to make its Queqiao communications relay satellite available for future far-side lunar missions. “There’s no problem for China to collaborate with other countries, and we welcome other nations to use this relay satellite to help their landing on the far side,” he said.
Wu said China plans to put astronauts on the moon eventually, but he acknowledged that NASA and its partners would get there first. He pointed out that it’ll take several years for China to build its own space station in Earth orbit. “That takes a lot of effort from us,” he said. “If we add a lunar landing on the moon, it’s not impossible, but it’s something in parallel with that.”
So, will English be the moon’s official language 50 years from now? Will it be Chinese, or some new sort of international language? In a response to a question, Zurbuchen said he likes the idea of having a Star Trek-style universal translator that’s attached to a person’s ear and can instantly turn a phrase like, say, “One giant leap for mankind” into “人类的一次巨大飞跃.”
“I actually think to get to that is a decade. … The language, I just don’t think on a time scale of 50 years is a problem,” he said.
Garver, whose new nonprofit venture aims to use space imagery to raise awareness about earthly issues, had a different take on the 50-year question. She predicted that the moon was likely to have a status similar to that held by Antarctica today — as a place for scientific research and some tourism, but limited habitation. The biggest impact of the next 50 years of space exploration and observation could well be seen not on the moon or Mars, but on our original home planet.
“I imagine that we will have solved our Earth-based problems,” she said, “partly through our knowledge that we’ve gained through the perspective of space.”
GeekWire’s Alan Boyle helped organize today’s “Moon and Beyond” session at the World Conference of Science Journalists, and as a result, WCSJ funding is covering the bulk of his travel expenses to Lausanne.