The world celebrated 50 years of the moon landing in the year 2019, which also marked more than 50 years of human spaceflight and space exploration. Today, in 2020, advances in technology and international cooperation have helped humankind reach different worlds and use the advantages of Earth orbit for providing services to humanity. One such challenging frontier is the study of planetary bodies and its moons. Many countries like EU states, US, India, China, and Japan are leading the frontiers for exploration in this arena.

The Apollo missions opened the gateway to lunar exploration and future studies related to the lunar environment and its evolution. The future decades after Apollo have seen a rise in the robotic exploration of the solar system. Following are some of the missions in the contemporary time frame.

In 2019, SpaceIL’s Beresheet lunar lander, a technology demonstration operated by Israel Aerospace Industries was launched by SpaceX. It was a finalist of the Lunar Xprize competition along with other teams namely Hakuto (Japan), Moon Express (US), Indus (India), and Synergy Moon. However, the Xprize was ended unclaimed as the teams failed to make a launch attempt before the deadline. The spacecraft could not achieve a soft landing. However, it demonstrated the capability of non-governmental organisations to participate in space exploration. Many companies are currently working on development of technology to assist lunar exploration.

The Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) has achieved a range of successful missions from Chang’e 1 lunar orbiter to Chang’e 3 and 4 demonstrating soft landing on the Moon under the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). Chang’e 4 is studying the lunar geology and exploring the region around the lunar south pole. The mission also hosted a biosphere experiment which resulted in the first sprouting of plants ever on any other celestial body.

Later in the year, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched Chandryaan-2 mission aboard the GSLV Mk-III launch vehicle. Even though the lander could not demonstrate a soft landing capability, the orbiter is functional and is assisting in providing scientific results. The Orbiter High Resolution Camera (OHRC) onboard the orbiter has provided the highest ever resolution map of the lunar surface. 

Astropreneurs had an opportunity to interview Dr. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man on the moon, former NASA Astronaut and Colonel in the US Air Force. In this interview he shares his experience of spaceflight during the Apollo mission and his vision for the future.

Astropreneurs: How would you describe your experience during the launch?
Buzz Aldrin: “Well, it was exciting. The countdown proceeded, and we were glad we didn’t have to start over.  The launch went very smoothly, and at last we were on our way!  The launch itself was surprisingly smooth, and nothing unexpected happened.  We actually did not know exactly when we had left the ground except from the instruments we were watching and the voice communications. From the instruments, we could see our rate of climb and altitude changing, but we were comfortable in our seats.  We sort of looked at each other and thought:‘we must be on our way… what’s next?’”

Astropreneurs: Please tell about the landing on the moon and the conditions under which the landing took place.
Buzz Aldrin: “As we approached the moon, we levelled off and kept moving down and forward to land.  We knew we were continuing to burn fuel. We knew what we had, then we heard ‘30 seconds left’. So it was nice to finally touch down. We saw our shadow cast in front of us as we landed, something we never saw in the simulator. That was new. I saw dust creating a haze, not particles, but a haze from the engine pushing dust up.  The light turned on, I announced ‘contact light,’ ‘engine stop’… We were happy to have landed. Neil and I smiled.”

Astropreneurs: Did you think a lot about home while you were flying to the moon, or when on the moon?
Buzz Aldrin: “While others thought about what we were doing, we were very concentrated on being on the moon. As Neil climbed down the ladder, mission control told us they were getting an image, but it was upside down. They fixed that, and soon we were both out of the lunar module and on the surface. Neil called it ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,’ and the moon looked to me like magnificent desolation. But on the moon, we had jobs to do. We had experiments to set out, and so we concentrated on that more than anything else. As for thinking about all those watching, we really did not think much about that. We were focused on mission control; they were the people we had to think about most. Of course, it was exciting. Neil decided where to put the camera, and I got out two experiments and carried them. We were focused on the experiments, making sure they were level, pointed toward the sun. One experiment involved a sort of level which with a small BB settling in the center of a cone. In one-sixth gravity, the BB kept going around and around. I stepped away, did other work, and then came back and found the BB centered and the experiment leveled. On the moon, a levelling device does not give level right away!”

Astropreneurs: What are your views on planet Earth and the future of exploration?
Buzz Aldrin: “Well, we were glad to be coming home. There is only one Earth. On splashdown, we had to throw a switch to release the parachutes, only it was a bit bumpy, so we tipped over before we could release the parachutes, then the balloons tipped us to the right side up again. It was good to be back, and eventually to see and talk with family. People often remember the photo of us at a window in the containment trailer. Funny story. When they played the national anthem, we wanted to stand up but to be at the window, we had to kneel.  We certainly were glad to be back home in America. Even this many years later, it was a privilege to have been on that first crewed mission to the lunar surface, an honour to have worked with so many good and dedicated people, and to have left our footprints there.  Sometimes, I marvel that we went to the moon. I think it is time for the next generation to set their eyes on Mars.”

At present, many missions are continuously providing information for development of future lunar exploration. Here are some of the missions that are being planned for lunar exploration in the coming years:

Artemis: The mission by NASA aims to boost human spaceflight for solar exploration by putting the first woman and next man on the Moon by the year 2024. The mission aims to establish sustainable exploration by collaborating with private companies and space agencies. Several technological developments are in progress including a launch vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS), a human-rated command module ‘Orion’, a lander, new generation spacesuits, and the Gateway, an outpost for the Moon.

Chandrayaan 3: ISRO is planning a lunar landing mission to demonstrate soft landing capability on lunar surface. It will be the third lunar mission by ISRO after Chandrayaan 1 and 2, which contributed to the understanding of the lunar environment and provided evidence for presence of water in the lunar exosphere, surface, and subsurface. The discovery has eventually awakened the possibilities for in-situ resource utilization of water ice.

Chang’e 5 and beyond: After the successful demonstration of soft-landing capability with Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4, CNSA is planning for Chang’e 5 sample return mission in December 2020 and is reported to consist of four modules for exploration, and sample return. It is to be followed by Chang’e 6 in 2023-2024 and Chang’e 7 in the future.

Lunar Polar Exploration Mission: An international collaboration between the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and ISRO to study water ice distribution and condensation mechanisms. Development of a 350 kg rover and a lander will take place and the payloads will be launched by H3 rocket in the year 2023.

Acknowledgement: We would like to acknowledge Dr. Robert B. Charles for helping us with the interview.