Russia Announces Plans To Send Humans Back To The Moon

Shown is a European concept for a lunar base. ESA/Foster + Partners.

Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, has announced that it wants to land humans on the Moon by 2029 – six decades since the first men walked on the lunar surface. It follows news earlier this month that both Russia and ESA want to eventually colonize the Moon, by creating a permanent lunar base there.

"A manned flight to the Moon and lunar landing is planned for 2029," Vladimir Solntsev, head of Roscosmos Energia (RSC Energia), said in an announcement on Tuesday, reported Russia Today.

Details for this mission are few and far between, though. Russia is apparently working on a new spacecraft for the endeavour, but the exact logistics of how it would all work are not known. A flight of this spacecraft is planned for 2021, followed by a flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2023 and an unmanned Moon mission in 2025.

The ISS is due to be retired around 2024, and Russia has said previously that it may consider building a new space station, with or without NASA. A separate robotic mission, called Luna 25, is planned with ESA for 2024, which will touch down on the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken crater on the far side.

"We have an ambition to have European astronauts on the Moon," Bérengère Houdou, head of the lunar exploration group at ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Center (ESTEC), told BBC News earlier this month. "There are currently discussions at international level going on for broad cooperation on how to go back to the Moon."

China, too, seems to be keen on missions to the Moon. They successfully landed a rover there on December 14, 2013 – the first landing of any kind on the Moon since Russia’s Luna 24 on August 22, 1976. They have also been advancing their human spaceflight capabilities, with an experimental space station in orbit and their Shenzhou spacecraft, with manned lunar missions a possibility in the future.

It should be noted that this is not the first time Russia has done some saber-rattling regarding landing on the Moon. They have made similar announcements previously, but this time appears to be slightly different as they claim to have a spacecraft in development.

NASA, meanwhile, continues to eye missions to Mars as its key goal, although some have advocated that they, too, should consider going back to the Moon. No humans have set foot there since Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt left the surface in December 14, 1972, with only a handful of robotic landings taking place since.

"The high-priority line of activities for Russian manned programs in the next 10 to 20 years is lunar exploration," Solntsev said in a statement on RSC Energia’s website. "As for Mars, today it is the final reachable destination of manned space flight. At the level of technologies achievable in the foreseeable future, manned missions beyond Mars are problematic."

Whether they are serious this time remains to be seen. But with the retirement of the ISS on the horizon, both the U.S. and Russia will have to decide how they reallocate their considerable funding for the station ($4bn for the U.S.) to other missions, be it sorties to the Moon or Mars.

Image in text: Apollo 17's Gene Cernan (pictured) and Jack Schmit were the last humans on the Moon, in December 1972.

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