Next stop: the Moon

Russia plans to start building a base on the Moon by 2027. It aims to land cosmonauts in 2024 and have the facility finished and staffed by 2032.

The former superpower had suggested being part of a joint expedition with NASA, but after this was apparently rejected — although the US agency said in April that it had not received any such proposal — the decision was taken to go solo.

The first step will be finishing work on the ISS, followed by refurbishment of the Soyuz craft. How cosmonauts are going to get to the Moon has gone unmentioned. It might be using thisKliper craft, but there’s just as likely no plan in place at all.

Unless the government rows in behind the federal space agency, Roskosmos, this proposal will never get off the ground (pun, dire as it was, most certainly intended). The agency only has an annual budget of $1.3bn, compared to NASA’s $16.8bn.

In 2005, NASA estimated its coming lunar programme could cost $104bn over 13 years (Apollo cost half that over eight). There’s no reason Russia can’t come up with a way of doing it more cost-efficiently, but doing it on the current budget seems idealistic at best.

It will inevitably turn to space tourism to raise funds. Five have flown so far — each paying $20m-$25m a pop — and one Russian gentleman is set to go into orbit in 2009. It also charges NASA somewhere in the region of $20m per person per flight on its Soyuz capsules to the space station.

Roskosmos chief Anatoly Perminov has said launches of foreign satellites and other commercial services are expected to generate $800 million in sales for Russia’s national space and rocket industry in 2008. This would be useful hard cash for a lunar programme, especially with the timeframe the agency has in mind. It’s unlikely to be enough though.

Collaboration would be the easiest and most efficient avenue to take, but without NASA on board that seems dead in the water. Russia is considering developing satellites and such with several Arab countries, but it’s fair to say these do not have sufficiently developed space programmes to be technically useful in a lunar expedition. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t contribute financially.

Russia isn’t the only nation with the Moon in its sights. China — which sees a successful space programme as a major tool in establishing its international reputation and prestige — and Japan are planning lunar flights by 2022 and 2025, while India might steal a march on both with a mission by 2020.

India is to spend $1.5bn over five years developing the requisite technology, and what it can achieve in this timeframe and on this budget will indicate if Russia can achieve its goals.

Ultimately, the more resources dedicated to lunar exploration and occupation the better. Earth won’t last forever…

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