The European Space Agency has been fairly vocal about its big vision for bringing people back to the moon at some point in the future. Last July, ESA chief Johann-Dietrich Woerner expressed his desire to build a “moon village,” a research station built and operated by both space agencies and private companies. Now, he’s following up. The ESA is dedicating time and energy to this goal and plans to have Woerner taking in Earthrises daiquiri in hand by the end of the 2030s.
Those intentions were the focus of the ESA’s two-day symposium entitled, “Moon 2020-2030 – A New Era of Coordinated Human and Robotic Exploration,” held at the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, Netherlands. Over 200 scientists and agency experts from 28 countries gathered over December 15 and 16 to discuss exactly how the ESA and the world ought to treat moon exploration and research over the course of the next decade.
The main takeaway is that the ESA wants to begin laying the groundwork down to build what would essentially be a research base on the moon, and also begin establishing a presence in cislunar space and lunar orbit as well. This wouldn’t be simply to facilitate greater scientific research about the moon, but also to make it easier for the ESA and other space agencies to begin launching missions that take manned and unmanned spacecraft into further reaches of space more easily and efficiently.
This means the ESA’s moon plans could play a significant role in helping the world send astronauts to Mars and beyond. Across the Atlantic, NASA has been outspoken about its plans to get human boots on the surface of the Red Planet before the end of the 2030s. One potential idea that could make this mission more feasible: using the moon as a proving grounds.
Instead of sending astronauts to Earth straight from Mars, we could build infrastructure on the surface of the Moon as well keep active facilities operational in cislunar space and lunar orbit. We wouldn’t have to stock a spacecraft with everything it needs for the trip all at once. Those resources - like food and more importantly fuel — could be picked up at the moon to lighten the load.
In addition, the moon could be the place where we test a lot of the equipment and technologies we’ll need for establishing a permanent Martian outpost — our prime goal in getting astronauts over to the planet. If we can get these things to work on the Moon first, there’s a bigger chance they will be functional on Mars later on.
The other big takeaway has to do with lunar resources — i.e. mining. There happens to be a lot of water on the moon, as well as many other valuable rocks and metals. The ability to dig into the moon and extract these things could revolutionize space exploration and make it several times easier to send manned craft to other places within and beyond our solar system. Water, if we learn to use it as part of spacecraft propulsion technologies, could especially turn into the oil of space.
With NASA firmly focused on Mars, the ESA is in a prime position to take charge of continued lunar exploration for the 21st century and take humans back to Earth’s only natural satellite. At this point is not really a question of if — just when.