Foust Forward | The moon bounces back

Mars gets eclipsed by the moon at annual gathering of world space leaders

BREMEN, Germany — In recent years, the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) has been a venue for discussing Mars exploration plans. It’s helped that, in 2016 and 2017, Elon Musk attended to give plenary talks on his Mars mission concepts, a rock star livening up a normally staid technical conference. But other companies and organizations joined in as well: Lockheed Martin used past events to discuss its “Mars Base Camp” concept for Mars exploration.

At this year’s just-concluded IAC here, though, the story was far different. Mars didn’t get much attention outside of technical paper presentations devoted to Mars exploration. Elon Musk stayed home, although attendees had hopes he would make a last-minute decision to show up. And Lockheed Martin devoted most of an hourlong presentation on the conference’s last day to the moon, rather than Mars.

Indeed, it was hard to avoid the moon, figuratively or even literally: a giant inflatable moon, about 2 meters in diameter, was at the Airbus booth in the exhibit hall and sometimes made its way to other conference events. “We’ve seen nearly every day announcements about moon activities and moon initiatives,” said Giuseppe Reibaldi, president of the Moon Village Association, during a panel near the end of the IAC.

NASA and other space agencies, for example, talked up participation in the Gateway (the “Lunar Orbital Platform” part of its full name has recently been, well, lopped off in most discussions of the cislunar outpost.) Startups showed off designs for lunar landers and rovers, which sometimes could be found roaming the exhibit hall. Blue Origin also used the IAC to remind people of its plans for lunar missions, signing a letter of cooperation with German aerospace company OHB.

An inflatable moon bounces through an exhibit hall at the International Astronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany. Credit: Jeff Foust/SpaceNews
An inflatable moon bounces through an exhibit hall at the International Astronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany. Credit: Jeff Foust/SpaceNews

But for all the enthusiasm about lunar exploration, and announcements made during the conference, there were far fewer specific details about just how to achieve those goals. For example, a number of countries, from established players like Europe and Japan to Australia’s brand-new space agency, are interested in cooperating on the Gateway. No decisions on who will participate and how are expected soon, though.

“We’re formulating what the architecture will look like, and then we’re looking at each of the space agencies and their capabilities, and we’ll be incorporating those capabilities into the architecture,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a news conference. He gave no schedule for that effort.

That uncertainty was exemplified by another IAC news conference to announce the formation of a new nonprofit organization called The Moon Race. The briefing room was packed with a crowd eager to hear about this effort, and the luminaries onstage included ESA’s Jan Woerner and Blue Origin’s Bob Smith. Even that inflatable moon made an appearance, at one point hosted above the heads of the organizers in the high-ceilinged room and later bouncing around like an oversized beach ball.

However, the group said little about what The Moon Race will actually do, beyond organize a competition to develop technologies needed for lunar exploration. Many details about how exactly the competition will run, and how much money will be involved, remain to be determined. Asked after the event what Blue Origin’s role would be, Smith said that was still uncertain. “We just want to be a part of anything that gets us back to the moon.”

The IAC made it clear there’s definitively enthusiasm about going back to the moon (or “forward” to the moon, as Woerner repeatedly said.) Enthusiasm is necessary, but not sufficient: it will also need planning, funding, technology, and more to turn the visions presented at the conference into missions, outposts and even the Moon Village desired by Woerner and others. Many of those details still need to be worked out.

At one point during the IAC, a group of people were rolling that inflatable moon down an aisle in the exhibit hall, then stopped and looked around, as if they weren’t sure where they were going. They finally had the moon, but now they needed to figure out what to do with it.