Moon race

Starting in the 1960s, the whole world was riveted by the competition between two countries. The first satellite, the first man in space, the first man on the moon. While these events will forever be a part of history, the question remains: why did space agencies turn their backs on the moon, despite the fact that it is still in the spotlight of the academic community today? A new round of the moon race with new participants is unfolding before our eyes.

2 fronts of the moon race

The history of lunar exploration is as dramatic as a Shakespearian tragedy. Many have heard of the race between the lunar programs of the USSR and the United States. At first, the Soviet Union was in front. In 1959, the Soviet station Luna-2 transported a pennant with the state emblem of the USSR to the moon. Luna-3 photographed the far side of the moon, unseen from Earth. In 1966, Luna-9 made the first soft landing and transmitted a panorama of the lunar surface.


The completed Soviet Lunokhod-3 rover that never made it to the moon. NPO Lavochkin Museum. Photo: D. Voynarovsky

But the huge investment by the US in its space program served its purpose: it is generally accepted that by the end of the 1960s, the US had overtaken the USSR and eventually went on to win the Space Race. Between 1970 and 1976, the USSR sent two remotely operated Lunokhod rovers to the moon and brought three lunar samples back to Earth in the Luna 16, 20, and 24 stations. The US responded with six Apollo missions that took twelve astronauts to the moon between 1969 and 1972. However, there is one important caveat:

"The Americans brought back 380 kilograms of soil from the moon, while the Soviet stations returned with only 324 grams. However, the Americans couldn't keep their samples airtight, while the Soviet researchers could. And so it was the Soviet samples that led to the landmark discovery of water on the moon. The results of the Soviet and American lunar programs over the last half-century clearly show that the Soviet one was more effective and had greater potential, though it was less of a sensation. Manned flights are too expensive and risky, so planetary science all over the world is now following the Soviet example of creating remotely controlled rovers and taking samples back to Earth. "It is extremely unfortunate that they pulled the plug on the Soviet lunar program for a long time and that it's barely recovering only now,” says Nikolai Gorkavy, Leading Analyst at Science Systems and Applications.

Regarding the question of how the moon formed, the Soviet and American models have been in competition since the 1970s. According to the model developed by the Schmidt-Safronov group at the Institute of Earth Physics, the moon formed from an accretion disk that grew around the Earth due to an influx of asteroids with heliocentric orbits. According to the Hartmann-Davis model based on the first analysis of lunar soil, the moon formed in a "mega-impact" between Earth and the planet Theia. Pieces from Theia and Earth's mantle entered Earth's orbit and formed the moon.


Astronaut and geoscientist Harrison Schmitt investigates a rock on the moon on December 13, 1972. On the right is the lunar vehicle of the Apollo 17 mission. Photo: NASA / Apollo 17 / Eugene Cernan

“Multi” Instead of “mega”

“In 2007, I published a new model of the formation of the moon. It was a synthesis of the accretion theory and the mega-impact model. According to the new model, the moon formed from an accretion disk whose mass increased many times due to the transfer of matter from Earth’s mantle. This transfer is similar to that in the mega-impact theory, but it's not the product of one mega-shock but rather of many much less catastrophic events. A similar mechanism is also responsible for the formation of minor-planet moons,” recalls Gorkavy.

It was soon demonstrated that the isotopic composition of oxygen in lunar samples and Earth's crust is almost identical. And according to the mega-impact theory, the moon mainly consists of material from Theia which had its own isotopic composition. However, proponents of the mega-impact theory continued to stand their ground until it eventually fell out of favor.

In January 2017, Israeli scientists published an article on multi-impact moon formation in Nature Geoscience. The article was trumpeted by the world's press, and the mega-impact theory finally dropped out of the scientific mainstream. The theory of the moon's formation moved on.

Russian Lunar program

A new round of the moon race is now beginning, with developing countries like India and China joining in. Moreover, China has announced plans to establish a permanent settlement on the moon. This has forced the United States and Russia to re-activate their lunar programs.

Two key goals of the Russian lunar program are to land cosmonauts on the moon's surface in 2030 and to launch regular flights to the moon in 2032.

“The first stage is in the 2020s. During this period, we plan to perfect a number of critical technologies and update and supplement our information about the moon's surface. The Luna 25–28 machines and subsequent robotic systems will be sent there to solve these problems. At this stage, manned transport spacecraft and lunar spacecraft systems will be tested in low Earth orbit, including on board the ISS,” explains Maria Danilova, research fellow at the Center for Manned Programs of the Central Research Institute for General Machine Building.

The second stage will begin once launch vehicles for taking crew to the lunar surface are ready, presumably at some point after 2030. The beginning of this stage will be marked by short-term expeditions to the lunar surface with a duration of one to two weeks and a crew of up to four people. The crew will need to check the operation of transport systems, life support systems, and robotics.

From 2032 onwards, it is planned to proceed to longer expeditions lasting up to thirty days. A universal module for the lunar base and lunar surface vehicles will have to be developed by this point. The results of this stage will be used to determine the optimal locations for the future lunar base and finalize its specifications.

Stage 3 will tentatively begin in 2035–2036. Its main goal is to begin a full-scale exploration of the moon, with expeditions lasting up to two months. At this point, the construction of large-scale facilities using local resources will commence. This will involve outfitting research and production facilities with apparatus and equipment, as well as building infrastructure to facilitate living and production.

“The Russian lunar exploration program will require extensive financial and production resources. It should take full advantage of the potential of international partnerships. This can involve cooperation with ESA, JAXA, and other agencies whose aim is to travel to the surface of the moon. One possible option for such cooperation is participation in the HERACLES joint project by ESA, JAXA, and CSA to create and develop an automated lunar lander, lunar rover, and robotic equipment. The objectives of this project largely coincide with the objectives of stage one of the Russian lunar program,” Danilova continues.

So far, NASA is less interested in operations on the lunar surface, focusing instead on plans to build the Gateway lunar orbit outpost whose main task will be the preparation of long-term manned deep-space missions.




Postgraduate student, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Junior Researcher, Laboratory of Applied IR Spectroscopy, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, author of popular science articles.

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