In 1975, three years after the final Apollo Moon landing, Space: 1999 first aired on British television. It began with a nuclear explosion wrenching the Moon, and an international lunar colony of over 300 people, out of its orbit and into an unknown journey into space.
The TV series obviously made an impression on a young Elon Musk because, when the SpaceX founder revealed their plans for a lunar colony in August 2017, he called it Moonbase Alpha after the lunar base in Space: 1999. “Cheesy show,” Musk tweeted, “but I loved it.”
SpaceX is not alone is wanting to get humans back on the Moon. The Chinese space agency CNSA (China National Space Administration) has announced the next stages of its successful Chang’e lunar exploration missions - shortly after Chang’e 4 became the first spacecraft to make a soft landing on the far side of the Moon.
Chang’e 5 and 6 will be sample return missions while Chang’e 7 will survey the South Pole, a region of specific interest for human habitation because it contains water ice. “We hope that Chang'e 8 will help test some technologies and do some exploring,” deputy head of the CNSA Wu Yanhua said in January, “for the building of a joint lunar base shared by multiple countries.”
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China is not alone in this ambition. Across the globe, 50 years after the Moon landings, the practicalities of a moonbase are taking shape. The irony is that, while only the United States of America has left footprints on the Moon, the Americans are now having to play catch up. It didn’t unveil plans for a permanent moonbase until August 2018. Nasa’s primary focus until then had been Mars. The European Space Agency (Esa) was already one step ahead.
Esa announced plans for a permanent lunar base in 2016. Pioneered by its new director-general, Jan Woerner, his vision for a ‘Moon village’ would contain a diverse population of people – from scientists to artists – and both public and private organisations. This could be for astronomical research, tourism or geological prospecting for minerals in short supply on Earth.
He was definitely ahead of the curve. Ariel Ekblaw, founder of the MIT Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative, also wants to “democratise space” and, to this end, has brought together multi-disciplinary research groups ranging from robotics and synthetic neurobiology to architecture, art, space and design.