What role for Europe in the return of Americans to the Moon?

Europe is the continent of inventors and explorers. Starting five hundred years ago, European scientists developed a large number of machines, processes and objects that we still use in our daily life. In the same period, the navigators, still European, furrowed the oceans of our planet and mapped it. Europe must therefore not forget its legacy of explorers.

The United States of America sets course for the Moon, to send astronauts there. NASA’s ARTEMIS program plans to bring astronauts to the lunar surface in the 2024s. Pending this landing, two intermediate stages are planned: ARTEMIS-1, where the ORION capsule will orbit the Moon without crew in 2021, followed in 2022 by ARTEMIS-2 with a crew of four astronauts. It will therefore be the ARTEMIS-3 mission in 2024 which will return humans to the lunar surface, more precisely to the South Pole. It’s not just about the man’s return to the Moon, as the Trump administration has emphasised that a woman will also be among the first crew.

The new GATEWAY space station is part of this strategy. GATEWAY will serve as a “base camp” for lunar excursions, quite similar to a mountain base camp which is used to rest before an ascent. From GATEWAY, the astronauts will assist their colleagues who are on the lunar surface. They will be able to pilot robots to explore the environment and search for resources. This new orbital station will also serve as a telecommunications relay allowing to establish a link between instruments and robots on the surface, even on the hidden side (indeed, currently, only the Chinese Space Agency has the capacity to communicate with the face hidden from the Moon, thanks to its satellite-rover duo YUTU and QUEQIAO). GATEWAY will be much smaller than the space stations ISS and MIR in Earth’s orbit. It will operate in an environment very different from that of Earth’s orbit stations. Indeed, located in lunar orbit, it will not be protected by the terrestrial magnetosphere. As a result, it will be fully exposed to phenomena and dangers linked to deep space. Radiation levels are higher than those on the ISS, plasma and material flow are not attenuated by the terrestrial environment. GATEWAY will allow the development of technologies and operations necessary for long-term missions under these specific conditions. In this context, living and working on this station will prepare astronauts for missions on the lunar surface, but also for missions to the planet Mars. Instruments installed outside the station will collect unique data.

Thus this GATEWAY station becomes the SAS for future manned and robotic missions to deep space. To date, Europe is providing significant elements and functionalities for the development of this new space station. And these developments and this expertise can also serve as a European contribution for future ARTEMIS missions. However, the role of Europe in this return to the lunar surface is not yet well defined and a strong commitment from Member States is essential to ensure that we have a European seat in this adventure and guarantee that a European astronaut will be the next to walk on the Moon after their American colleagues. Europe as a continent of explorers deserves this place.

China, Russia, India, all have conquered our celestial neighbour, the eight continent. It is essential that Europe also plays an important role in this new race. A budgetary insufficiency cannot be an excuse for a European hesitation in this initiative. Indeed, nations like the Republic of India are setting up an ambitious manned flight program, and this with a space budget much lower than that of European agencies. There are even private companies in the United States of America that are setting up the infrastructure to send astronauts to the ISS. Europe has more resources and expertise than an American company, and a reflection on the European industrial strategy will obviously be necessary: ​​new methods must be used, SMEs, start-ups and newcomers in the space sector must be massively supported on the “Old Continent”, to enter this new Space Race of the Third Millennium. Future missions will not aim to plant flags. They are intended to secure space and resources for a variety of new European industries to come. They must make it possible to reverse the brain drain, this current flight of researchers and engineers towards countries with more ambitious space objectives. They must inspire our next generations. The aerospace sector is one of the pillars of French and European industry, we have no right to miss this launch.

In a somewhat ironic way, one could say that the Apollo program was a “successful failure”: while it ended the space race in the framework of the Cold War, Apollo did not allow to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon. Fifty years after Neil Armstrong’s first step, only twelve men have walked on the Moon. The government of President Donald Trump has established new momentum and acceleration in this race to the lunar surface with the ARTEMIS Program. The European Space Agency and its Managing Director Johann-Dietrich Wörner have been defending a sustainable return to the Moon for years. The only way to arouse the interest of potential investors in a lunar activity is to bring various civil society actors, researchers and industrialists to these missions. Returning to the Moon should not be the business of a single agency, and this is where Europe can pave the way. While the United States of America is preparing to bring an American to the Moon, Europe should work, in parallel, as a partner, to ensure a sustainable continuation of lunar activities beyond the first landing of ARTEMIS. This can be done by building a whole new industry in Europe focused on lunar activities and by supporting the ARTEMIS program with elements that can help make this return to the Moon the foundation for a permanent presence. Housing technologies, radiation protection, micrometeorites, dust, robotics, astronautics and ISRU (in-situ resource utilization) must be developed, and Europe must bring its unique expertise in this sector. These necessary expertise and their testing facilities, as well as demonstrators, already exist in Europe to deal with these problems.

At a time when a new lunar race is looming, limited to planted flags, in a context of changing global balances, Europe must show a sustainable alternative, scientifically, industrially and socially viable. It is important that our nation remains at the forefront of science, technology and exploration. The decision to race towards new goals will soon be taken; the long-term future of our continent will be decided in the upcoming months. Europe must keep its Explorer spirit.