Race to the Moon: Twenty-First Century Edition

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Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin walks on the Moon.
Source: US National Archives, “AS11-40-5903_alt – Apollo 11 – Apollo 11 Mission image – Astronaut Edwin Aldrin walks near the Lunar Module,” nara.getarchive.net, July 20, 1969

Only Americans have set foot on the Moon. The first “space race” culminated in the June 20, 1969 Moon landing of Apollo 11. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first of only 12 astronauts to set foot on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. No one has stepped on the Moon in the 50 years since. [1] [2] [3]

Now, the world is in the midst of a second race to the Moon after water was discovered on the surface in 2008. Thales Group, a French multinational aerospace company, explained the significance of that discovery: “Oxygen and hydrogen could be sourced from lunar ice to make rocket propellants, while other Moon resources like helium-3, an energy-producing isotope, could power future fusion rockets for the next step in the space race: sending people to Mars. Permanent lunar colonies would also support the long-term observation of the Earth’s land surface, biosphere and atmosphere, improving scientists’ ability to predict climate, weather and natural hazards.” [4]

So far, the race has three main private competitors: Richard Branson who launched the Virgin Galactic Unity 22 mission on July 11, 2021; Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin New Shepard launched on July 20, 2021, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which currently flies NASA astronauts to the ISS. [5] [6] [7]

Meanwhile, a piece of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched in 2015 is on course to crash into the Moon on Mar. 4, 2022, renewing the conversation about how to handle space junk. The fragment, which is about the size of the school bus, and weighs four tons, is hurtling through space at 5,600 miles per hour and will leave a new crater on the Moon. [8]

The new Moon race comes amid news that NASA plans to decommission the International Space Station (ISS), allowing the aging structure to crash into a remote part of the Pacific Ocean in 2031. Decommissioning the ISS is expected to save NASA $1.3 billion in 2032 and $1.8 billion per year by 2033, funds that can be used for research aboard private stations. Private companies are eager to send new space stations into orbit, including Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef research and commercial station, Nanoracks’ StarLab research station, and Axiom Space’s station that may include a movie production studio. [9] [10]

All of this talk about space, of course, fuels dreams of and debates about Mars exploration and space colonization

Discussion Questions

1. What should the focus of a 21st century space program be? The Moon? Mars? Colonization? Explain your answer(s).

2. Consider a space colonization program. What would you make sure to include from Earth? Consider people and other living things, objects, and ideas. Explain your answer(s).

3. What are the potential implications of space junk on space colonization? Explain your answer(s).


1. Justin Bachman, “New Space Race Shoots for Moon and Mars on a Budget,” washingtonpost.com, Aug, 22, 2021

2. Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, “APOLLO 11 (AS-506),” airandspace.si.edu (accessed Feb. 7, 2022)

3. NASA, “Who Has Walked on the Moon?,” solarsystem.nasa.gov, Apr. 28, 2021

4. Thales Group, “To the Moon and Beyond: The 21st Century Space Race,” thalesgroup.com, June 10, 2020

5. Devin Coldewey, “Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson Celebrate Launch of First Passengers into Space,” techcrunch.com, July 11, 2021

6. Marcia Dunn, “Jeff Bezos Blasts into Space on Own Rocket: ‘Best Day Ever!,’” apnews.com, July 21, 2021

7. NASA, “NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2 Astronauts Headed to International Space Station,” nasa.gov, Apr. 23, 2021

8. Deepa Shivaram, “A Piece of Space Junk the Size of a School Bus Is Barreling Straight toward the Moon,” npr.org, Feb. 2, 2022

9. Jackie Wattles, “The International Space Station Could Fall from the Sky in 2031. What Happens Next?,” cnn.com, Feb. 4, 2022

10. George Dvorsky, “NASA Details Plan to Retire ISS in 2030 and Deliberately Crash It into the Pacific Ocean,” gizmodo.com, Feb. 3, 2022