Armstrong on the moon: one small step to an exciting future in space
21 Jul 2023|

Fifty-four years ago today, American astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, famously declaring: ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ Humanity’s first visit to another world shaped expectations for our future in space. Between July 1969 and December 1972, the Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the lunar surface, before it was abruptly cancelled.

Apollo’s success ensured that space exploration continued—with robotic probes to the planets, humans establishing a permanent presence in low-earth orbit (LEO) aboard US space shuttle missions from 1981 to 2011, and the construction of the International Space Station.

Finally, men and women are now planning to return to the moon. NASA is set to fly four astronauts around the moon on Artemis II in 2024 and then land on the lunar surface as early as 2025 on Artemis III. Further Artemis missions are planned that will eventually lead to a permanent human presence there.

China too, isn’t sitting still, and has brought forward its proposed landing from 2034 to ‘by 2030’. If NASA’s plans are delayed due to uncertainty over the agency’s budget, Chinese taikonauts could be the next to walk on the lunar surface.

The focus of the next phase of exploration is resource utilisation, particularly at the lunar south pole. This would demand a permanent presence on the surface and around the moon in ‘cislunar space’, an area that is of key interest to the United States. The US cislunar science and technology strategy argues that it’s a new sphere of human activity, a gateway to the rest of the solar system and a valuable location for science and technology development among partners.

The main goal for NASA and its partners, adhering to the Artemis Accords, is to develop the technologies and skills to take astronauts to Mars, perhaps by the late 2030s or early 2040s, and to learn how to use space resources to develop space-based manufacturing and establish a space economy. China, in collaboration with Russia under their proposed international lunar research facility, will also undertake exploration and exploitation of lunar resources. Beijing seeks a Chinese-dominated cislunar space economy that would see the moon and the area around it become a new high domain for astrostrategic power.

In time, both sides could be poised to use lunar resources to develop space-based solar power satellites that could one day dramatically ease humanity’s energy challenges and help mitigate climate-change risks. China is already making progress in this area.

There are clear benefits in establishing a presence around and on the moon—but also real potential for competition for control of lunar resources, despite legal constraints on claiming territory under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. There’s discussion in space policy circles about the potential military relevance of cislunar space and the capabilities and presence that may be needed there to protect future orbits and trajectories from interference, especially as the human presence on and around the moon grows. Space policy analyst Peter Garretson argues: ‘What is driving the US military to look at cislunar … is fear that China’s moves to cislunar will provide it with a positional and logistic advantage from which it could occupy, constrict, threaten or coerce US interests.’ Although the focus of military space remains firmly within what Bleddyn Bowen refers to as the ‘cosmic coastline’—the region between LEO and GEO (geosynchronous equatorial orbit) relevant to the use of force on earth—it’s conceivable that in coming decades a ‘blue water’ perception of space power focused in cislunar space may gain support.

This is far from the original vision of Apollo, summarised on the plaque left at Tranquility Base by Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, which suggested that US astronauts ‘came in peace for all mankind’. The space competition emerging between China and the US is not a space race—which implies a finish line; it is more open-ended and broad-based. Rather than just getting back to the moon first, the goal is to establish an astrostrategic advantage over the long term.

A dimension that didn’t exist in the Apollo era is commercial space. The opportunity for companies and other private actors to play an ever-expanding role in earth orbit and beyond to the moon—and then beyond that to the wider solar system—is real and significant. By 2040 the global commercial space sector is expected to be worth more than US$1 trillion. Commercial companies will be not only launching satellites but also directly supporting humanity’s presence on and around the moon and establishing commercial LEO platforms for manufacturing that use resources extracted from the moon. It’s a safe bet that solar power satellites will be built from lunar resources and operated by commercial companies. Australia already contributes to this important field. Reusable rocket technologies such as those of SpaceX and, in the coming decades, hypersonic spaceplane technology like that being developed by Australian company Hypersonix, will make getting into space and using that domain much cheaper. The lower the cost to get there, the easier it will be to exploit space for ambitious projects such as solar power.

Both NASA’s Artemis plans and the commercial space sector are hugely important for Australia. This nation provided important support to the Apollo missions. Armstrong’s famous message was received at the space communications facility at Honeysuckle Creek near Canberra before the signal was transferred to ‘the Dish’ at Parkes in New South Wales. Humanity would have missed that historic moment without Australia’s involvement.

Australia is still contributing to space exploration by the US and its partners, including for the planned Artemis missions to the moon in the 2020s and 2030s under the Australian Space Agency’s ‘Moon to Mars initiative’. Our commercial space sector is vibrant and growing and is poised to make its own giant leap, perhaps within the next two years, to being able to launch Australian satellites on Australian rockets from Australian launch sites, through the development of launch vehicles by companies such as Gilmour Space Technologies. Such an achievement would have been inconceivable even 10 years ago. Australia’s commercial space sector has made incredible progress under the guidance of the Australian Space Agency, established in 2018. It’s important that this momentum is maintained if Australia is to continue to be a credible actor in a transformed global space sector. Recent decisions on space are a cause for concern.

When Armstrong stood on the moon, he gazed back at the earth, a beautiful blue planet and home to all humans who had ever lived. It was indeed humanity’s first giant leap towards becoming a spacefaring civilisation, and a step along a path that one day will take us to Mars and beyond—and that might ultimately ensure our survival as a species. If we have the right determination, future steps may be taken by an Australian astronaut on the lunar surface.