The BBC has reported that the Excalibur Almaz company has removed its unused Soviet-era Almaz space station module and capsule from its Jurby hangar on the island to an “undisclosed location”. This has been taken by observers as a sign that the project to initially circumnavigate and then eventually land Manx space men and women (along with space tourists) on the Moon is probably over.
The reason for the removal was reportedly because the lease on the hangar had run out. The Isle of Man was most recently rated by Seradata’s annual analysis as being the fourth nation most likely to return humans to the Moon.
In this annual assessment held every August, Seradata ranks the chances, expressed as a “bookmaker’s odds”, of each nation being the next to return humans to the Moon and being the first to land humans on Mars. In 2010, the Isle of Man had originally grabbed the headlines after being rated by Ascend’s space team (now Seradata) as fifth in this “space race” – ahead of Japan and Europe. It was subsequently promoted to fourth in 2012 after India temporarily fell away after a series of launch setbacks.
However, before the news of the Almaz module’s removal, the Isle of Man was already on the point of being reduced to an outsider in the race back to the Moon. News of the Excalibur Almaz project’s progress had become very thin save for media reports of funding problems and those citing recent lawsuits involving allegations of fraud and whether the firm even had the right to modify the Russian supplied hardware. There was also subsequent news that one of the smaller crew transport capsule spacecraft had been sold off at auction.
However, Art Dula, who heads up the Excalibur Almaz firm, has reaffirmed that the project to launch humans initially on circumlunar flights around the Moon is genuine, and is still very much on. However, the firm still needs passengers to sign up at circa US$200 million a flight for the project to progress.
With respect to which nations are the current favourites to return humans to the Moon, the US, China, and Russia occupy the top three spots. Of these the US has made the most progress via its SLS heavy lift launch vehicle.
Of the following pack, India has most improved its position, having been re-enthused by the recent successes of its unmanned MOM Mars orbiter and GLSV launch vehicle. With China as its main regional and space competitor, India has confirmed even grander space ambitions including plans for a manned mission. India has also just announced that its annual space budget will be increased to the rupee equivalent of US$1.2 billion.
Comment by David Todd: The Excalibur Almaz concept is an imaginative one. Having astronauts and space tourists transported to low Earth orbit and then using a larger craft to cruise to the Moon could have worked. Their craft’s ultra-high efficiency electric thrusters (engines) precludes having to take a vast amount of fuel into orbit.
The downside is that using such low thrust engines usually means a long mission time – with all that entails for the amount of consumables needed (water, food, carbon dioxide scrubbers etc). It also has the large downside of increased radiation exposure. Apart from normal solar and cosmic radiation to guard against, long spells of time would have been spent travelling the Van Allen belts and their fluxes of charged particles.
However, with a suitable shielding, such manned tours of the Moon could have been performed and even could have included landings if a suitable landing/ascent craft had been built. Actually, lunar ambitions aside, such a craft would be ideal for use as a Mars transportation craft – with suitable radiation shielding.
Over longer ranges, i.e. to Mars, using electric thrusters actually CUTS mission time assuming they are large enough. However, larger thrusters need more power, usually requiring either very large solar arrays or possibly nuclear generators.
Technology aside, funding was always going to be the biggest hurdle to getting such a project to work. That and finding a suitable launch vehicle. While Proton could carry the main Almaz craft (albeit at a cost of about US$100 million), would Russia really want to help a private outfit to beat it to the Moon? The same reasoning might have caused the Russians to put an alleged clause in their contract of sale saying that the Almaz module and capsules could not be modified. But it will be up to the law courts to decide that one.