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India wins and Russia loses in the new race to the moon

Chandrayaan-3 lander is in the center of the image, its dark shadow is visible against the bright halo surrounding the vehicle.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University
Chandrayaan-3 lander is in the center of the image, its dark shadow is visible against the bright halo surrounding the vehicle.

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The world is in a new race to get to the moon. Recently, India became the fourth country in history to land a craft on the moon just days after Russia's mission crashed on the surface.

Chris Combs is the D. Howard Endowed Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the director of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

TPR's Jerry Clayton spoke with Combs about these missions and the new race to the moon.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Clayton: Luna 25 is in pieces and left a crater on the moon. What happened there?

Combs: To the best of my knowledge, they're still investigating. But there was a bit of a mishap with a burn that was supposed to happen as the lander was approaching the moon. Basically, they had a thruster that fired for a good bit longer than it was supposed to, and that caused the lander to crash into the moon. And we've recently got images of a crater that we think is the remnants of the Luna 25 craft.

There are people on the inside that have made some comments to suggest that maybe there were some problems cropping up that they could have foreseen this issue, but they were pushed a bit by the pressure from India and were kind of feeling some pressure to race, and maybe overlooked some potential problems with the craft before they performed this burn. But either way, it is unfortunate to see that one lost.

Clayton: Now, at least the first part of India's Chandrayaan-3 mission is complete on the moon. How did they do?

Combs: They passed this test with flying colors. It really was neat to see. This was a point of national pride for India. So you love to see that type of thing. It does kind of remind you of why we do this. It is an inspiration. But you look at their original mission objectives, and I think they've already knocked that out of the park because it really was to land on the moon and have the rover be functional and to make a few measurements. And they've already exceeded that, in my mind.

And they've demonstrated evidence of a variety of minerals and resources. So it's really exciting stuff. And I think the more countries that have a capability to explore space, the better, because we need everybody working together in this.

Clayton: Why does there seem to be such a big push to get to the moon again now?

Combs: Yeah, there are a lot of reasons why folks are suddenly interested in this again. And one is it's kind of clear from the mission that India is completing right now is that there are potentially a lot of resources on the moon.

There's some interesting elements — ice in particular. That's part of why we're interested in the Lunar South Pole. If there's ice on the moon, then that means you have potential for drinking water for anything happening on a lunar base. You can have oxygen and hydrogen. So then you've got potential for breathing oxygen and for rocket fuel. So it is a resource rich place potentially.

There is interest in using the moon as a jumping off point for other missions to other places in the solar system. If you could construct a spacecraft on the moon and launch it from the moon, well, that in itself would be a costly and expensive endeavor because it is lower gravity. You can be a little bit more ambitious in the types of things that you launch. It could be a jumping off point or a halfway point for certain types of missions elsewhere.

It is going to be a bit of a training ground in a sense, for any type of mission, say, to Mars or elsewhere in the solar system, because all the technologies that we will need for astronauts to survive on Mars and to thrive on Mars, we're going to have to deal with those challenges on the moon as well.

I think the time is right, and it's an exciting time to be following this.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.