Excerpt from bostonglobe.com
Decades after that first small step, space thinkers are finally getting serious about our nearest neighbor By Kevin Hartnett
This week, the European Space Agency made headlines with the first successful landing of a spacecraft on a comet, 317 million miles from Earth. It was an upbeat moment after two American crashes: the unmanned private rocket that exploded on its way to resupply the International Space Station, and the Virgin Galactic spaceplane that crashed in the Mojave Desert, killing a pilot and raising questions about whether individual businesses are up to the task of operating in space. During this same period, there was one other piece of space news, one far less widely reported in the United States: On Nov. 1, China successfully returned a moon probe to Earth. That mission follows China’s landing of the Yutu moon rover late last year, and its announcement that it will conduct a sample-return mission to the moon in 2017. With NASA and the Europeans focused on robot exploration of distant targets, a moon landing might not seem like a big deal: We’ve been there, and other countries are just catching up. But in recent years, interest in the moon has begun to percolate again, both in the United States and abroad—and it’s catalyzing a surprisingly diverse set of plans for how our nearby satellite will contribute to our space future. China, India, and Japan have all completed lunar missions in the last decade, and have more in mind. Both China and Japan want to build unmanned bases in the early part of the next decade as a prelude to returning a human to the moon. In the United States, meanwhile, entrepreneurs are hatching plans for lunar commerce; one company even promises to ferry freight for paying customers to the moon as early as next year. Scientists are hatching more far-out ideas to mine hydrogen from the poles and build colonies deep in sky-lit lunar caves. This rush of activity has been spurred in part by the Google Lunar X Prize, a $20 million award, expiring in 2015, for the first private team to land a working rover on the moon and prove it by sending back video. It is also driven by a certain understanding: If we really want to launch expeditions deeper into space, our first goal should be to travel safely to the moon—and maybe even figure out how to live there.