Space exploration is at a crossroads. For the last few decades it has largely been about NASA and its shuttle fleet, but quiet players in the field are starting to come forward with some bold plans. Both Russia and Japan, for instance are talking about returning to the lunar surface in major ways.
A gathering of space agency heavyweights met in Washington D.C. on Tuesday to discuss plans for the future at the Global Space Exploration Conference. Notably absent was NASA chief Charles Bolden, who was down in Florida overseeing SpaceX's Dragon-Falcon launch, which delivered the Dragon capsule to orbit as it prepares for berthing with the International Space Station.
Present were the agency heads from space programs all around the world, including Russia, Europe and Canada, as well as reps from Japan and India. Russia and Japan particularly have worked closely with NASA on the International Space Station, though all the nations listed have contributed in some way. Even with active space programs, however, no other nation could boast what NASA's Bolden could have: the U.S. remains the only country to have manned moon landings under its belt.
In a few decades this may no longer be singularly true.
For its part, Russia has had a marked interest in the moon lately. A few months ago the country's Roscosmos space agency was reaching out to Europe and NASA for a joint commitment to the moon.
Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin is again making this mindset clear (the following remarks are from Popovkin speaking through a translator): "We're not talking about repeating what mankind achieved 40 years ago. We're talking about establishing permanent bases."
A representative for Japan's JAXA, which has sent probes to orbit the moon, echoed this sentiment: "We are looking at the Moon as our next target for human exploration."
You can't build a moon base on plans alone, of course, but this kind of talk comes at a time when NASA is looking to skip the moon and put boots on an asteroid, instead.
Who will reach the moon first? Will it be a race between Russia and Japan? Will it be a cooperative effort between several nations and corporations? We'll just have to see.
Editor's Note: This article uses a cut-down version of some most excellent Phil Smith space art. For your enjoyment, the full painting is here: