Lunar Mission One – Can It Succeed?

10349900_1523807731203424_1290925223437780697_n[1]73%. That’s what former Minister for Science and Chairman of Lunar Missions Ltd Ian Taylor reckoned the chance of success of Lunar Mission One would be. This number, on the face of it, appears to be reasonably precise. Assembled from a detailed analysis of all the risks, you might think? No. In reality, like much of his talk this evening, it was a fudge – pieced together on the fly, with little scientific substance to back it up.

Lunar Mission One is a crowd-funded space mission. Started in late 2014 by a wide array of collaborating UK institutions which Ian Taylor listed with pride. It plans, in the early 2020s, to send a probe to the Moon and perform cutting-edge scientific research. They pitched the idea to the public via Kickstarter and, by the skin of their teeth, made it to the £600,000 goal needed to start developing the idea. Their ultimate goal is to produce a mission for everyone. (Where, as far as I can work out, ‘everyone’ is those who have donated sums of money to the cause).

lunar-mission-one_3110612k[1]Their scientific principle, at least, has merit. They will fly a large probe to the unexplored Shackleton Crater at the Lunar South Pole and use cutting-edge drilling tools to make a ~100m hole in the lunar ice and rock. The geology of this borehole could reveal untold secrets about the history of the Earth-Moon system and make literally dozens of British Lunar geologists quite happy.

The team will then fill in this hole with “Memory Boxes” – digitised containers that members of the public can, for a small fortune, fill with their most treasured memories and unwanted iTunes collections. These will then sit under the lunar crust for 4 billion years before either being fried by an expanding sun or rescued by some helpful intelligent alien species.

Lockheed build the Phoenix Lander
Lockheed build the Phoenix Lander

For those of you worried that there might be a limit to the market of moon-based hard-drive storage space, fear not – the Lunar Mission One team might have something else up their sleeve: Someone will take it over! Ian Taylor banded around a couple of names. Lockheed Martin for instance. For too long have these private contractors worked for contracts based on money – the time is right for them to start backing space missions for free…

Despite lots of long-winded answers-that-weren’t-quite-answers, Ian Taylor did not really fill us in on just how such a mission might be funded. The £600,000 raised so far is only 0.1% of the budget needed to get a space probe to the moon. He suggested international collaborations could easily get the funding necessary, but with most western countries already invested in their own agencies (eg ESA), where and why would any extra funding end up in a British company’s hands?

google-lunar-x-prize[1]The Google X-Prize contenders, who set to reap a $35million bonus for landing on the moon, tell a cautionary tale. Backed by a combination of crowd-funding and business investments, not one of the half-dozen teams involved made it to the Moon by the 2012 deadline. Twice this has been extended, and twice the teams have failed.

Even private investors such as Virgin Galactic or Space-X, who have a profitable business model, have struggled with the costs and timescales involved with spaceflight. And these, which Ian Taylor was so quick to draw comparisons to, are profitable ventures. Lunar Mission One has even less potential for generating income than Mars One, another independent space mission that looks destined for failure. Most would agree that crowd-funding has its limits, and £600million is above that limit. Way above.

Another question that springs to mind is why, if the scientific concept is so good, did the institutions involved go down a private route? Why not propose directly to ESA, and face the potential of €650million reward to build the space mission? I put this to Ian, and he tried to convince me that ESA (and NASA) was hell-bent on Mars and not on the Moon, whereas the scientists he had spoken to were adamant that lunar missions are more important. (NB: Well of course they were, Ian; you spoke to Lunar Scientists. If I only spoke to the dozen White Dwarf astronomers in my department then I’d probably get the idea that the only necessary mission was to send a craft to Sirius B!) And ESA missions to Jupiter, a comet, the Sun as well as two exoplanet satellites prove that is not really the case. The selection process is done by numerous committees that select programs based almost entirely on their scientific potential. That lunar geologists cannot get their missions selected in telling.

China's Moon Probe, Chang'e
China’s Moon Probe, Chang’e

In reality, most planetary scientists would agree that there are still other more interesting places in the solar to explore than the Moon. Many of these destinations, such as our planet’s near-twin Venus, are also relatively thin on the ground when it comes to future missions. The Moon, however, is an easy target for newly-emerging space agencies such as India and China. One can even imagine a manned mission before Lunar Mission One even launches.

I was cautionary optimistic when before hearing Ian Taylor and the Lunar Mission One concept. Now, after an hour of name-checking and avoiding difficult questions, I feel the opposite. The whole mission seems to lack any clear sense of direction. It seems like they caught their £600k target almost by surprise, like a dog chasing a car. Now, from that unlikely position, they must raise £599million more (£15 for every working adult in the UK) for a mission that, compared with the exploits of Rosetta, sounds uninspiring.  73% suggests Ian? My guess would be more like 0.7%.

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