New Space Race: USA retakes lead in lunar return race as Isle of Man’s minnow bid sadly falls away

by | Jul 29, 2015 | China, ESA, exploration, History, JAXA, NASA, Russia | 0 comments

High Summer is the time of year when the Seradata space team does its annual analysis of the relative chances of each nation “winning the space race”.

In this we act as a notional bookmaker offering notional odds that reflect each nation’s relative chances of:

1) Being next to return humans of their nationality to the Moon

2) Being the first nation to put its astronauts on Mars

The Return to the Moon Race remains mainly a two-horse affair

The race to return humans to the lunar surface is definitely on, now that NASA realises that even an astronaut asteroid mission might be too much to handle, plus the new head of ESA is promoting the concept of a “Lunarville” village on the far side of the Moon, and China is continuing to make steady progress in its unmanned lunar programme.

The odds:

USA: 6-4 Favourite (in from 7-2):  USA retakes favourite position after solid progress on its SLS launch vehicle, which means it has a heavy-lift launch vehicle ace up its sleeve along with its Orion spacecraft. Progress has been limited by funding. However, there seems to be new excitement at the prospect of having a small space station located at the Earth Moon L2 position, from which expeditionary lunar landings could be made.  Direct landings could be made even before this.

Meanwhile, a new report sponsored by NASA suggests that the USA  could return to the Moon in as little as seven years under a public-private project. NASA will still need to have a suitable landing craft to do this, the development of which could take five years. Time to dust down the blueprints for the Apollo era’s Lunar Lander?

China: 5-2 Second Favourite (out from 6-4):  China has successfully soft-landed a lunar rover, and plans a lunar sample return mission – effectively mimicking what astronauts have to do with respect to lunar orbit rendezvous, and landing and lift-off and re-entry techniques. It now has the building blocks to mount a serious challenge should the USA falter.  However, its weak point is the lack of a heavy-lift launch vehicle. China has a plan for one, dubbed Long March 9, but is about three years behind the USA in its development.

Russia: 8-1 (out from 3-1):  Russia’s bid to be the next nation to put its cosmonauts on the Moon is, like the first time around, falling away. As it recommits to running the International Space Station until 2024, the rest of Russia’s space programme is strapped for cash.  After briefly mooting a super-heavy lift equivalent to SLS (“SLS-ski”), Russia has instead decided to prioritise the development of a new cryogenic upper stage for its Angara-A5 rocket.  Mind you, Russia’s planned new Orion-like manned spacecraft replacement for Soyuz would be suitable for lunar missions, albeit with a lander and proper transfer stage.  Getting to the Moon would be difficult with out a super-heavy lift launch vehicle, but a cut-price mission using an Earth docking technique to join a manned capsule and transfer/return stages to a lander might just be possible. For the time being, Russia seems content to mount an unmanned lunar rover expedition to the South Pole of the Moon in 2019, while trying to tempt China into mounting joint manned missions to Earth’s natural satellite later on.

India 33-1 (in from 50-1):  India is back in the game retaking its rightful position as fourth favourite.  Its recommitment to manned spaceflight is the reason along with recent successes in its troubled GSLV launcher programme. Although it lacks the landing, rendezvous and heavy-lift launch technology, it remains the only serious outsider.

European Space Agency and Japan cut to 250-1 (in from 500-1):  The new Director General of ESA, Jan Woerner, is keen on the Moon and has suggested that a lunar base and village could be built on the far side.  At the UK Space Conference he even suggested that the Moon should be renamed an asteroid to get ESA’s NASA colleagues to go there.  ESA has neither the funds nor the inclination to go on its own, but it will take part in NASA’s lunar exploration plan as it supplies the ATV-derived service module for Orion.  Japan is in a similar position.  In other words Europe (including possibly the UK) and Japan may get their men and women to the lunar surface – but, in that event, they would be second out of the hatch of a NASA-led mission.

United Kingdom stays at 300-1:  The UK remains a dark horse.  Its related Isle of Man bid fell away – see later – while its astronaut programme remains for the time being attached to ESA – and hence to NASA’s plans.  Nevertheless, it has a real chance of doing something independently in the longer term, if Reaction Engines can ever get its Skylon single-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle working at one tenth of current launch prices. Meanwhile, the likes of Airborne Engineering are becoming specialists in hovering rocket engine technology, which would be ideal for a lander (manned or unmanned).

The Isle of Man falls away from fourth favourite to join rank outsiders Iran and North Korea at 1,000-1:  It is sad to report that the potential “Duchy of Grand Fenwick”*-style usurper of the great space powers, the one time fifth and then fourth favourite at 33-1, the Isle of Man, has had its bid for lunar stardom virtually ended following the apparent collapse of its Excalibur “space liner” project. This was to combine an Almaz ex-Soviet space station module and re-entry capsule with electric thrusters to make a slow gracious journey to the Moon.  The Almaz module has been moved from Jurby on the island to an undisclosed location. Worse, as the Isle of Man virtually leaves the field, there appear to be legal recriminations over the project, apparently centring on whether the firm ever had the right to modify the Almaz system in the first place.

While Iran and North Korea have both expressed ambitions for a human space programme and even mounting manned missions to the Moon, really these are just pipe dreams, though a suborbital flight into space might be achieved.

The Mars Race: USA is nearly certain to win but will first human on Mars be of South African descent?

Russia still wants to retake the lead in the space race by getting its men on Mars, however, sadly, it just has not got the resources.  While China has the resources and a lot of the technology needed, it lacks both a heavy-lift launch vehicle and the inclination to go at this stage. The Moon is its No.1 priority.

Thus this is really a one horse race: USA! USA! USA! Its odds are 1-10 (10 to one on).  The rest have fallen away to 33-1 bar.  NASA is committed to keeping Mars as its No.1 target though it might go back on short excursions to the Moon first.

More interesting will be whether it will be NASA or a USA privateer outfit that wins this race to Mars. While NASA might one day decide to mount a large-scale landing expedition to the planet (though it really does need an even larger launcher than the 165 metric ton-to-LEO SLS if it is to restrict the number of launches needed), in truth the USA’s best hope of making a landing on the planet within the next twenty years lies with privateer entrepreneur Elon Musk and his SpaceX firm.

SpaceX is reported to be working on a 300 metric ton-to-LEO-class super-heavy lifter to carry his Mars Colonial Transport to the planet.  We are counting a Musk landing as a USA win (presuming he will lead the first landing mission and be first out of the door) even though he was born in South Africa and, for a time, held Canadian citizenship via his mother.

So will the Martians ever meet a nice South African? Probably not, but they might meet a naturalised American as this is what Elon Musk has been since 2002.


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