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Because it's there

An Asian Moon race is neither particularly worrying nor especially inspiring.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States and Soviet Union mounted dozens of missions to the Moon, orbiting it, crashing into it and landing softly on it. They even went so far as to return samples from it, either with a little help from some humans on hand or, in the Soviet case, without. Subsequently, neither spacefaring power touched the place for almost 20 years. In part this is because their race, such as it was, had ended. It was also because planetary scientists were far more interested in exploring other places. The Moon had a distinct been-there-done-that aura.

But for aspiring nations that have neither been there nor done that, the Moon has a great advantage over other objects of celestial study. Although only moderately interesting, it is very close and relatively easy to reach. So in 2003 it was the obvious target for Europe's SMART-1 mission, which tested a new sort of rocket propulsion. And it is currently the destination of choice for others seeking to develop their spacefaring prowess.

In September, Japan finally followed a very small lunar mission launched in the 1990s, Hiten, with a much larger and more ambitious one, SELENE. October saw the launch of Chang'e-1 from China (see page 12), timed to coincide with the 're-election' of Hu Jintao as leader of the Communist Party — a piece of celestial theatrics well in tune with the spirit of technocratic command and control that characterized the original Moon race. Next year will see the launch of India's Chandrayaan-1 and America's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the heavyweight of the current crop.

It is easy to exaggerate the extent to which this constitutes a new Moon race. National rivalries and prestige definitely play a part in some of these programmes: China's, in particular, is both touted by the government and appreciated by the population as evidence of national accomplishment and ambition. But the idea sometimes floated that this activity reflects a new perception of some sort of value in the Moon itself is wide of the mark.

Although there are interesting scientific questions about the Moon, few, if any, are of the first order. And despite some hype to the contrary, the Moon's potential as a source of raw materials for Earth's consumers is ludicrously constrained. There is nothing there worth the cost of bringing back to Earth (not even helium-3, a fuel of unknown utility to a second or third generation of fusion reactors of unknown feasibility). The Moon's potential as a resupply station for spacefarers visiting other places is also poor, although perhaps not entirely negligible.

That doesn't mean that the current spate of missions to the Moon is worthless. One learns by trying, and the Moon is a good test bed for mastering the arts of planetary exploration. The same applies, further down the line, to the far more resource-intensive business of sending humans; if you feel you must send humans elsewhere, it is a conveniently near at hand and well-characterized destination.

But the only prize to be won in any race that ends with humans yet again walking on the Moon is global recognition that you have managed to do what was accomplished to little lasting effect back in the days of flower power. It remains unclear that such recognition is worth the already stretched resources of India or China — or of any other nation.

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Because it's there. Nature 450, 2 (2007).

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