Decades after the first lunar landing, the space race has come back into vogue. Driving the competition is the potential value of the moon's economic, scientific, and even geopolitical promise.
Dominance in space, while I was growing up, was something confined to comic books and sci-fi movies. In 1969 that changed. Three astronauts from the U.S. made "one giant leap for mankind" by walking on the Moon. As a high school student, I marveled that Mars would be next, but space exploration quickly took a back seat to other issues like Vietnam, Civil Rights, and the arms race.
Fifty-four years later, space is back, and it is now a real proposition. Countries like China, Japan, India, Russia, and the U.S. are looking to stake claims in this new extraterrestrial frontier.
The current thinking is that the moon is a great place to test out the technology needed to further explore the universe. In addition, those that can establish a presence, and mine for water and other resources, will have the necessary ingredients to travel deeper into space to destinations such as Mars. In short, the Moon is the most obvious place to jump off into infinity and beyond for the winners.
NASA's launch of the un-crewed Artemis 1 last year was the opening shot in a long-range plan to send people to the lunar surface by 2025 and, in time, establish a sustained lunar presence. Other nations have a similar mindset and are not far behind the U.S.
Much of the world's attention has switched to a specific area of the Moon after researchers discovered water on the Moon in 2008-2009. The existence of water is key to sustaining human life on the surface and it appears that the South Pole of the Moon contains quite a bit of it.
Russia, which made history in 1966, when the Soviet Union's Luna-9 touched down on the Moon's surface, has been racing against India to be the first to land in that area. However, their Luna-25 vehicle crashed into the lunar surface earlier this month. That allowed India's Chandrayaan-3 vehicle to touch down a few days later. India became the first nation to reach the moon's South Pole.
For India and its people, it was the crowning achievement in becoming a new power in space. It had already succeeded in sending its landers to the lunar surface and deploying a space station. India now joins the U.S., China, and Russia as the only nations that have succeeded in accomplishing a controlled landing on the Moon. Many have tried over the years without success, most notably both Israel and Japan.
But giving up is not an option in the race for the moon's economy. Several nations, as well as private companies, have plans to explore the lunar surface. Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency, for example, is launching a craft in a few weeks. Private companies such as Ispace and Astrobotic are also planning to send missions to the lunar surface with the intent of delivering cargo for governments. Altogether, there are more than 22 companies that have set their sights on the Moon.
Private companies are expecting this new space race, fueled by government competitors, will be a fertile field for future profits. Communication, defense, and data requirements are accounting for the largest share of private sector purchases right now. Entrepreneurs hope that products and services unique to the moon will soon follow.
In the case of NASA, supporting private industry is now part of their space program. Buying services from the private sector to support Earth orbit programs are already in place. Eventually, other business lines that could include transportation, water extraction, mining, and construction are contemplated. The fact that Boeing and Northrop Grumman (among others) built the Space Launch System rocket lends credence to these beliefs. In addition, several private companies are already working on spacesuits and Moon landers.
Critics worry that private companies may be putting the cart before the horse in investing in a new space industry at this early stage. Planning for the economic exploitation of the moon might happen, they argue, but it could be years away.
Spending billions now to develop the technology that would enable the delivery of payloads to the moon, with no sure customer, or even a human presence on the lunar surface is risky at best. But risk has always been the price for innovation, for breakthroughs, and for building a better future. Governments are betting that space and the exploitation of the moon could spark new industries, more economic growth, and plenty of new jobs, so it is worth the risk.
As for me, it's simple. I'm in for the long haul. If you have doubts, you only need to ask what would Buzz Lightyear do?
Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at email@example.com.
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