Chinese Lunar Landing Mission Challenges US Space Supremacy

November 24th Chang'e 5 Lunar Mission Launch
November 24th Chang’e 5 Lunar Mission Launch

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

An in-progress low key Chinese robotic sample and return mission is challenging the commonly held assumption that the USA is still the dominant player in deep space missions.

China’s Chang’e 5 poised for historic moon landing to collect lunar samples

By Meghan Bartels

China has reached a major milestone in its quest to bring home moon rocks, with its Chang’e 5 mission spacecraft separating into two pairs of vehicles in preparation for a lunar landing.

The Chang’e 5 spacecraft launched on Nov. 23 intent on becoming the first mission to bring lunar samples to Earth since 1976; the mission reached lunar orbit on Nov. 28. According to China’s state-run news agency Xinhua, the mission’s orbiter/return vehicle and its lander/ascender vehicle separated in lunar orbit  yesterday (Nov. 29) at 3:40 p.m. EST (2040 GMT; 4:40 a.m. Beijing time on Nov. 30). That move sets the stage for a landing near the peak of Mons Rümker, a mountain in the Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”) region of the moon.

“The spacecraft is performing well and communication with ground control is normal,” officials with China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) said according to Xinhua.


Read more:

Why do I think a low key unmanned robotic mission poses such a threat to US space supremacy?

The reason is if China decides on the basis of this mission to increase their Lunar activity, China’s friend Russia has spent over a decade developing nuclear launch technology which China could use to make a major expansion into space affordable.

In as little as 10 years, China could be building major industrial bases on the Moon, with the help of Russian nuclear powered reusable space launch vehicles.

By 2030, with Chinese and Russian flags flying on the moon, the USA could be staring into the face of at least two decades of desperate catchup, to get back into a game which America once dominated.

Note: The Russian nuclear launch technology is based on the 1960s US NERVA programme. Stationary ground based testing of NERVA at the time was perceived as an outstanding success, making NERVA a strong candidate for powering a manned mission to Mars, and resupplying a permanent moon base planned for 1981. Despite bipartisan support from Congress in 1972, the programme was cancelled by President Richard Nixon in 1973, part way through building a full scale NERVA launch vehicle, while Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal.

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December 1, 2020 6:15 am

Isn’t it China vs Musk/Bezos at this point? SpaceX seems to be moving along at a pretty fast clip with Starship SN8 and Starhopper. New ideas and new engines coming on board. They have launched 100 Falcons (many with the same boosters) including manned missions. You don’t see the Chinese being that nimble.

Reply to  rbabcock
December 1, 2020 6:54 am

You are correct. The US approach to space has finally been to let the majority of the work be done by private companies rather than government bureaucracies. Sure, let NASA design earth observing satellites and flybys of the planets. But let private industry build the vehicles and commercialize space, the Moon, and Mars. With this approach, commercial industry at SpaceX and Blue Origin have equaled in 10 years what NASA, Russia, and China took 20 or more years to do with their government approach. Expect that – faster, better, cheaper trajectory to continue.

Reply to  DMurphy
December 2, 2020 5:40 pm

The US space program was ALWAYS done by private companies, with funding and contract management done by the US government via NASA. NASA did not build boosters, landing modules, telemetry equipment, or any of the hardware that got us into space.

The only difference now is that Musk is spending his own money developing these technologies, God bless him. Hopefully he’ll sell enough to the US government to partially recoup his outgo, though that will take a long time.

Reply to  rbabcock
December 1, 2020 7:41 am

Apparently there is something else there
comment image
It is a slow-moving object, between five and 10 meters in diameter. It passed less than 50,000 kilometres from to the Earth (geosynchronous orbit is 36k km), and then returned to the solar system.
Some scientists believe that it might be a “mini moon” that was discovered in September, currently classified as an asteroid, but not enough is known about it yet. Others, however, believe that this is the remains of an old rocket or the remains of a 1966 Surveyor spacecraft.
The object is moving much slower than most asteroids, which generally reach speeds between 11 and 72 kilometres per second. In contrast, this mysterious space body reaches a speed of only 600 meters per second .

Reply to  Vuk
December 1, 2020 9:09 am

The object orbits the sun in a near circular orbit at about the same distance from the sun as the Earth.

Reply to  Vuk
December 2, 2020 5:56 pm

How can something moving only 0.6 km/s relative pass within 50,000 km of Earth and not be captured?

Reply to  rbabcock
December 1, 2020 8:48 am

Huh, Bezos got an orbital class rocket going somewhere? Didn’t hear about that one. If Bezos hasn’t got an orbital class rocket, I’m not sure it’s “Musk/Bezos”.

Reply to  Spetzer86
December 1, 2020 10:36 am

From CNN: “Blue Origin is also designing a much larger rocket, named New Glenn, that the company hopes will deliver cargo and satellites into orbit”

and: “The company’s (Blue Origin) mascot is a tortoise, meant to symbolize it’s dedication to go as slowly as needed and never cut corners. It’s by many accounts the opposite of the culture at SpaceX, which embodies the Silicon Valley ethos of moving extremely quickly and embracing mistakes as learning experiences.

They will get there… or maybe not.

Reply to  Spetzer86
December 1, 2020 1:56 pm

According to wikipedia, this is the list of companies currently building orbital vehicles
Northrup Grumman
Sierra Nevada Corporation
Blue Origin

December 1, 2020 6:27 am

Gee, we get to expand on the Russian “Flying dirty bomb” hypersonic cruise missile.
Just when we are finally bringing around the environmental movement to nuclear power.

December 1, 2020 6:46 am

Interesting, but I don’t think a robotic moon mission counts as “deep space”.

Paul Penrose
Reply to  Lancifer
December 1, 2020 10:46 am

This. I’ll be much more impressed when they manage to land something on the surface of Mars. And remember that the Soviets were able to land on the moon and even return small amounts of material to Earth, but never men. That’s a lot harder than most people think, even today. I would bet that SpaceX will land a manned version of their Starship on the Moon before the Chinese put boots on the Lunar surface.

Reply to  Paul Penrose
December 2, 2020 5:42 pm

When they land on Titan and send back photos, let me know.

December 1, 2020 6:47 am

Might as well fly a mission with all of that stolen tech they got from NASA and contractors. What space weapon platforms come next?

Reply to  Eric Worrall
December 1, 2020 1:39 pm

The rods from God!

Reply to  Eric Worrall
December 1, 2020 1:58 pm

It would only be “minutes” if there is a platform in position. If there is none in position, it could be many hours before one is in position.

Reply to  Eric Worrall
December 2, 2020 9:27 am

Thor’s Hammer, conceived by Jerry Pournelle:

Reply to  Eric Worrall
December 2, 2020 5:45 pm

Well, unless they move their entire nation to the Moon, there are still hostages aplenty here on Earth. If their launch centers on Earth are destroyed and replenishment to the Moon is impossible, they might get a bit hungry, thirsty, and short of breath after a while.

December 1, 2020 7:05 am

As usual, supremacy is based on the willingness to spend money. Whoever spends the most on space will lead in space.

BTW, is the moon still considered deep space.

Reply to  Dave
December 1, 2020 9:50 am

The Trump administration did create the U.S. military’s newest branch: U.S. Space Force.

Reply to  noaaprogrammer
December 1, 2020 1:57 pm

A lot of progressives want to get rid of the Dept of Defense altogether. This branch will be the first to go.

Reply to  Dave
December 1, 2020 11:00 am

No worries then, US government spends far more money on Space than China, or China plus every other nation government agencies- if talking about governmental efforts.
Now, wiki:
Just mentions NASA but that’s just civilian, US also military space program, which used to part air force and now, has been separated and called Space Force.
US also has agency in charge things like weather satellites {NOAA} which is about 5 billion per year or about 1/4 of NASA. US military space is a black program- meaning it uncertain what is spent- it’s classified.
But since NASA can lose or can’t account for billions of dollars spent, NASA is also sort is like a black program. Or it said to be due to accounting incompetence, or not supposed to be classified.
Any wiki totals the world at about $60,537,000,000
But that is small part of global space market- which all government and all private:
“In 2019, the turnover of the global space economy was 423.8 billion U.S. dollars, an increase from 414.75 billion U.S. dollars in the previous year.”
And they say world total govt spending is 86.91 billion, and sales or services bought totals 217.72 billion in 2019.
Or US taxes pay for about 20 billion per year for NASA {for decades}, 5 billion for NOAA, and at least +20 billion national defense space. And US military space, runs US spaceports, develops launch vehicle, allowed to ability to build Hubble Space telescope [technology developed for use for “spy satellites” and “found” water in lunar polar region in 1998- Clementine spacecraft}.
And wiki say, China is 11 billion per year, though increasing quite bit each year.

Detecting lunar water in lunar polar region is quite different than exploring the lunar polar region to determine if and where there could be mineable water. And NASA has failed to do this.
I would say this is the sort of thing of why we have NASA and everything not spend not doing it, is and has been, comparatively, a waste of money.
Or since early 1960’s it’s been suspected by people who worked at NASA that there could be mineable water in lunar polar region, and being utterly clueless is what bureaucracies do best. And 60 years later, we still suspect there could be mineable water on the Moon.
I give it a +50% chance. Though the cost of determining it, should cost less than 5 billion dollar. Though if offered paid someone to find out, 1 billion prize, would be more than enough. And if NASA continues to sit on it’s hands, maybe Musk will do it, as gift to humankind.
The Moon is useful as “a testbed” to do anything on Mars {if nothing else}. and I think NASA are willing pay 50 million in order to land a Starship on the Moon.

Anyhow, Musk going to try to fly the Starship to 50,000 feet, this week. He says there 1/3 of chance of it not failing. And next year will attempt to put a Starship in orbit.

Reply to  gbaikie
December 1, 2020 1:59 pm

I love the tag line they have been using on their commercials.

Sometimes the best job on Earth, isn’t on Earth.

Reply to  Dave
December 1, 2020 1:44 pm

I wonder if all the money NASA spends on climate change nonsense is hampering their “Space Program”?

December 1, 2020 7:17 am

There is no economic case for going to the Moon or Mars. Very unlike Queen Isabella using her jewels to finance Columbus’ attempt to find a better route for the very profitable spice trade. Any basic commodity that can be mined from an asteroid is cheaper and less risk to human life to mine right here. Space missions are totally government vanity projects and Ph.D guys supporting their paycheck by claiming they are hunting for life, or working to colonizing planets that have worse environmental conditions than anywhere on Earth (which they aren’t able to fix). We need to abandon the idea for a century or two….

Reply to  DMacKenzie
December 1, 2020 7:53 am

Agreed. Send low cost robots. No humans unless they buy a ticket. We’ll get far more info faster.

Reply to  DMacKenzie
December 1, 2020 9:28 am

Think of the moon and Mars as life rafts.

BTW, they will, in time, develop quite vibrant economies.

Tom Abbott
Reply to  DMacKenzie
December 1, 2020 12:35 pm

“There is no economic case for going to the Moon or Mars.”

Someone should tell Musk there is no reason to go to the Moon or Mars.

Maybe economic reasons aren’t what is driving Musk. Whatever is driving Musk, it’s going to take him and us to the Moon and Mars eventually. More power to him, I say. Somebody has to show a little vision and willingness to take a chance.

As the old saying goes: “Without vision (on the part of the leadership), the People perish”.

Reply to  Tom Abbott
December 2, 2020 5:47 pm

Columbus had the vision, not Isabella or Ferdinand.

December 1, 2020 7:20 am

China, the world governments allowed them to do as they please, and now the chinese do as they Please…

They lied about Covid and about the concentrations camps, I Do not trust china in space..

William Schroeder
December 1, 2020 7:28 am

“In as little as 10 years, China could be building major industrial bases on the Moon..”

What exactly would they be building?

Reply to  William Schroeder
December 1, 2020 7:53 am

How about 月亮防御基地 (google translates- moon defence base). Any space craft wanted to orbit or land on the moon without Chinese permission would be shot down. Not much anyone could do without starting a space war in the Earth’s orbit.

Paul of Alexandria
Reply to  Vuk
December 1, 2020 10:08 am

And if you control the Moon you have the military high ground for controlling Earth orbit and even the surface.

Robert of Texas
Reply to  Vuk
December 1, 2020 11:22 am

Such a base would be very vulnerable to all sorts of weapons. It would be stupid to build an expensive base on the moon and then have it shot to pieces at 1/1,000,000 the price.

Any battles in Earth orbit and all countries can kiss near and maybe middle Earth orbiting technology goodbye.

The problem with putting huge investments into space is that those investments then make it very worthwhile to stay peaceful in space. So not really a problem.

I personally see no reason to put people on the Moon. It’s incredibly expensive, hazardous to the people, and where is the payoff? Now putting machines on the moon…that might be useful.

Reply to  William Schroeder
December 1, 2020 8:52 am

Maybe H3?

Looks like more than one country wants a shot at moon mining. Have to be in it to win it.

Reply to  William Schroeder
December 1, 2020 9:11 am

Start building space craft.

December 1, 2020 7:46 am

China will have to step up their bribes and theft to do anything meaningful.

December 1, 2020 7:47 am

US space supremacy is under more threat from internal congressional politics than it is from China. Having the will is they key issue, and just waving the US flag around fails to justify the expense. What interest does the USA have in a robotic landing on the moon? Congratulations to China for landing on the moon. The list of nations that have tried is pretty thin. They can lay claim to beating Israel & India ( which hasn’t tried yet).

The moon is not “deep space”. The moon is within the “Hill Sphere” of the earth, & the moon is also large enough to dominate other objects within its own hill sphere. The area around the moon is most commonly referred to as cislunar space.

December 1, 2020 8:10 am

“Note: The Russian nuclear launch technology is based on the 1960s US NERVA programme.”
There is nuclear launch technology which is significant, a nuclear orion:
The 1960s US NERVA is upper stage- has low thrust in regard what is needed for launch with and high exhaust velocity making it propellent efficient.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  gbaikie
December 1, 2020 8:59 am


The Wikipedia article on Project Orion that you referenced has this statement:
“Early versions of this vehicle were proposed to take off from the ground (with significant associated nuclear fallout); later versions were presented for use only in space.”

So, relevant to the above article’s implication of using a nuclear-powered LAUNCH vehicle, I am curious as to how engineers have solved the nuclear fallout problem for the Orion-type launch vehicle’s first stage as it transits Earth’s atmosphere.

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
December 1, 2020 7:14 pm

“Danger to human life was not a reason given for shelving the project. The reasons included lack of a mission requirement, the fact that no one in the U.S. government could think of any reason to put thousands of tons of payload into orbit, the decision to focus on rockets for the Moon mission, and ultimately the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963. ”

And China not in Partial Test Ban Treaty, but over 100 nations are.

So I would say most important reason is the first given, “lack of a mission requirement”.
That is what a government would say.
I would say, lack of market for it.
But China prides itself on planning for 100 years {I regard that as stupid- though all the climate clowns are planning further into the future}. And US had an Apollo program to do, which the second best reason {and most practical}.
And now, US priority might be something like the lives of butterflies.

But I would oppose the US making a Nuclear Orion, as no one can own a nuclear bomb, or this could only be governmental project. And we won’t lower launch costs by the government making any kind of rocket.

But in the repressed China, the totalitarian government makes rockets.
And would say in less than 100 years, the Chinese government probably will need a Nuclear Orion.

Reply to  gbaikie
December 1, 2020 9:20 am

From what I’ve been reading, it looks like NERVA is an upgraded chemical engine. It uses a nuclear reactor to heat the fuel well above what can be achieved using chemical reactions which means the reaction mass can be ejected from the engine at a higher velocity which results in more thrust per unit of fuel.

Ion drives are more efficient by at least an order of magnitude. NASA has been testing an ion drive on a probe that is currently in the asteroid belt.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  MarkW
December 1, 2020 11:25 am

MarkW posted: “It uses a nuclear reactor to heat the fuel well above what can be achieved using chemical reactions which means . . . ”

Actually, the Nerva engine concept proposed heating hydrogen gas in a fission reactor nuclear core to around 2,500 K (see “Design Concepts” under ).

The H2/O2 engines of the Space Shuttle (the SSMEs) had an actual combustion chamber flame temperature of about 3,600 K, as reported by NASA, which is much higher than 2,500 K. This combustion temperature is also approximately that of most other H2/O2 engines in use today.

But Nerva can deliver a much higher specific impulse (Isp) because the exit gas is only low molecular weight H2 with negligible dissociation, whereas the exhaust gases from the SSME are, in terms of mole fractions,:
0.117 H2*
0.034 O2*
0.705 H2O
0.101 OH*
0.014 O*
0.030 H*
where * designates dissociation products of H2O associated with the very high combustion temperature.

Basically, the higher molecular weight oxygen present in the exhaust products greatly reduces the engine’s deliverable Isp compared to that achievable from a Nerva engine, despite Nerva having a much lower exhaust gas temperature.

Phil Gordon
Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
December 2, 2020 3:52 am

Mr. Dressler,

My knowledge of rocketry reached its zenith about 50 years ago, but included several years of designing alternative uses for Estes model rocket engines, not all of which were submitted for approval to my Scoutmaster prior to launch. In an attempt to prove to myself that I still have a few functioning brain cells, I googled “specific impulse” to confirm my confusion regarding how a relatively lower mass exhaust gas produces relatively higher thrust. It appears to me that thrust is directly proportional to exhaust mass flow, and it looks like .822 total mole fraction H2 and H2O would result in higher mass flow than pure hydrogen.

Could you please explain further?

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Phil Gordon
December 2, 2020 8:24 am

Hi Phil,

I believe your confusion results from assuming the total mass flow rate through a rocket engine is determined solely by the average molecular weight of the rocket’s exhaust products. This is not true. However, it IS generally true that a rocket engine’s thrust level is proportional to its exhaust mass flow rate.

The total mass flow through a rocket engine is the first-order determinate of its overall thrust level, for a fixed propellant/propellant combination. This is true for water rockets, for cold gas or hot gas rockets, for steam rockets, for monopropellant catalytic rockets, and for bipropellant rockets (such as the SSME H2/02 engine and the SpaceX RP1/O2 engines).

However, the “specific impulse” (Isp) associated with any given propellant/propellant combination is generally INDEPENDENT OF THE TOTAL MASS FLOW through the rocket engine. Isp is to first order established by the “characteristic velocity” of the propellant being exhausted (commonly referred to as “c*”) and to second order by the rocket engine nozzle’s dimensionless “thrust coefficient” (commonly referred to as “C-subscript f”, or just Cf):
Isp = (c*)(Cf)/g, yielding units of “seconds” of specific impulse.

In turn, to first order, c* scales approximately as (T/MW)^0.5, where T is the “combustion chamber” absolute temperature and MW is the average molecular weight of the propulsion mass products exiting the “combustion chamber”. T and MW are independent parameters . . . you can have a gas rocket that uses only pressurized GH2 at near ambient temperature but you can also have Nerva-type rocket engine that uses GH2 heated to about 2,500 K. Note that for a fixed rocket engine nozzle Cf, the c* (and hence Isp) is maximized by having very high T and very low MW in the propellant stream exiting the “combustion chamber”.

One way that I found to be convenient for explaining Isp in more practical terms is this: specific impulse is the number of seconds that a rocket can produce one pound of force using one pound of reaction mass. With this definition you can see that (a) rocket engine thrust is completely independent of rocket engine Isp (for a given engine c* and Cf) and (b) conversely, that rocket engine Isp is completely independent of rocket engine thrust (again, for a given engine c* and Cf).

I hope this helps.

Reply to  Phil Gordon
December 2, 2020 9:00 am

What is quite important in regards launching from Earth is dealing with gravity loss, wiki:
“In astrodynamics and rocketry, gravity drag (or gravity losses) is a measure of the loss in the net performance of a rocket while it is thrusting in a gravitational field. In other words, it is the cost of having to hold the rocket up in a gravity field.” And:
“For example, to reach a speed of 7.8 km/s in low Earth orbit requires a delta-v of between 9 and 10 km/s. The additional 1.5 to 2 km/s delta-v is due to gravity losses and atmospheric drag.”

And atmospheric drag and “steering loss” is a small portion of this loss.
And roughly a first stage launching from earth needs a higher “mass flow” in order to have lower gravity loss. With liquid rocket fuel, how much can pumped and ends up going thru rocket nozzle.
And with solid booster, how much surface area of the solid fuel which is burning- solid rockets usually are expensive rocket fuel, and lower ISP, but can have large mass flow.
With Space Shuttle, it used combination of liquid Hydrogen and Oxygen main engine, with two large solid boosters.
And the Saturn V rocket which had kerosene and liquid oxygen first Stage.
There has been a debate about using denser rocket fuel vs LH2/LOX vs Kerosene. Though one should say LH2/LOX + solid booster vs Kerosene and LOX.
Now, one has the Starship it’s using liquid Methane and LOX for it’s first stage, since SpaceX had used Kerosene for the Falcon 9, one might imagine a less dense rocket fuel “won” the debate- or at least chose something in the middle.
But SpaceX is attempting to make the liquid Methane as dense as possible and cheapest of liquid Methane could be factor, as Musk’s goal is to get launch cost some where in ballpark near the cost of rocket fuel.
Or at moment the cost of rocket fuel has little to do with the cost of launching rockets into space.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Phil Gordon
December 2, 2020 9:26 pm

“For example, to reach a speed of 7.8 km/s in low Earth orbit requires a delta-v of between 9 and 10 km/s. The additional 1.5 to 2 km/s delta-v is due to gravity losses and atmospheric drag.”

Well, in this example, the ratios of 1.5-2 km/s delta-v to 9.3-9.8 km/s, respectively, are equivalent to 16 to 20%.

I’ll leave it the reader to decide if 16-20% of any factor meets the definition of being “quite important”.

Reply to  Phil Gordon
December 3, 2020 6:35 pm

–I’ll leave it the reader to decide if 16-20% of any factor meets the definition of being “quite important”.*–
A related aspect to this is Max- Q:
“The max q condition is the point when an aerospace vehicle’s atmospheric flight reaches maximum dynamic pressure. This is a significant factor in the design of such vehicles because the aerodynamic structural load on them is proportional to dynamic pressure. This may impose limits on the vehicle’s flight envelope.”
Or if gain speed quicker you have less gravity loss, but then one gets too much dynamic pressure {crushes the rocket} one design rocket to withstand more dynamic pressure {or in some other way have less dynamic pressure] and rocket would have less gravity loss.

With space shuttle, it throttled back in order to lower the dynamic pressure when approaching Max- Q, and after passing Max-Q it goes back to full throttle. If shuttle accelerated slower {using less rocket fuel per second} it would not have to decrease throttle- but it have more gravity loss- it wouldn’t make to orbit. Since Shuttle used solid booster, and solid booster they can be designed to burn at different rates this could have been an option {but the way they did it was better way to reduce gravity loss}. Though another option could been to throttle back main engines earlier than they did. Instead they push it to a safe limit, and everyone hold their breath until they have passed thru Max-Q.
Also all rockets work more efficiently at higher elevation- why not accelerate slower {“save” rocket fuel in order to burn it where it’s more efficient- answer, because of gravity loss.

Reply to  Phil Gordon
December 5, 2020 9:11 am

–Well, in this example, the ratios of 1.5-2 km/s delta-v to 9.3-9.8 km/s, respectively, are equivalent to 16 to 20%.

I’ll leave it the reader to decide if 16-20% of any factor meets the definition of being “quite important”.–

I would say, the difference of 1.5 vs 2.5 km/sec of gravity loss is loss of at least 1/2 a rocket’s payload in orbit.
Or if rocket could get 10,000 kg to LEO with 1.5 km/sec of gravity loss, and wanted to significantly lower the dynamic pressure of Max-Q and doing this increase gravity loss to 2.5 km/sec, then payload would be reduce to 5000 kg or less.
And I would say halving or doubling a rocket payload is important.
Or one talk amount of rocket fuel used, such increase in gravity loss would double the amount rocket fuel one would have to use.
And the 1.5 to vs 2.0 would be about 50% increase in rocket fuel used {most increase in rocket fuel being in the first stage- and if using solid boosters, one increase their delta-v addition rather than needing to adding more liquid fuel and another first stage rocket engine].

But in terms of magical land, of not having any gravity loss, we would have been a spacefaring civilization decades ago, if it wasn’t a significant factor- the rocket would not need give high gee loads people going to orbit, and rocket would not need to be as strong to withstand the high gee loads.

Reply to  Phil Gordon
December 7, 2020 11:52 am

2 km/sec of delta-v is not a lot delta-v and it’s the amount of delta-v to land or leave lunar surface to reach low lunar orbit.
Though it’s the addition of 2 km/sec to the 7.8 km/sec needed to get to LEO which makes it significant.
To attain earth orbit, roughly one needs 9 kg rocket fuel to 1 kg of dry mass and attain lunar orbit from lunar surface require about 1 kg of rocket fuel to 1 kg of 1 dry mass. Or 2 km/sec of delta-v with chemical rockets is about 1 to 1.
And most of rocket fuel used, is used by first stage and provides about 1/4 delta-v to reach orbit and second and/or third stage provide the majority delta-v to reach orbit. And gravity loss is mostly related to amount of rocket fuel used by the first stage.

And I wondering now, how useful a nuclear thermal rocket would be as lunar lander, so something like NERVA, used as second stage and landing a payload on the Moon. Specifically could it land 20 ton of liquid Hydrogen on the Moon? And could cost 2 billion dollar or less to build that one rocket- or it could be worth the 2 billion dollars.
So it’s being used as it was designed be used as second stage of Earth launch, and that second is going to land on the Moon with 20 tons of extra rocket fuel {no other payload] on lunar surface- except it would bringing “extra tankage” to the lunar surface and one would unload extra tankage onto lunar surface.
The descend stage of Apollo LEM: “10,125 lbf (45,040 N), throttleable between 10% and 60% of full thrust”
NERVA had about 50,000 lbf and is throttleable.
And LEM ascend stage had about 1/2 gee acceleration and about 100 m/s {.1 km/sec} of gravity loss.
One might argue that since does 5 times thrust, it land 5 times payload or more like about 50 ton rather than 20 tons LH2. But it’s also delivering tanks from their use as the second stage rocket leaving Earth.
And Moon needs tanks and Hydrogen.
Or when mining lunar water one is mostly getting oxygen or if selling lunar rocket fuel one ends up with surplus of oxygen.
One could also think of it, as delivering nuclear fuel to the Moon.
So, it seems it’s worth 2 billion for one NERVA [and this includes development, one imagine additional units of NERVA cost less than 2 billion]. Now, if doing large scale mining on the Moon, one can get lots of Hydrogen- it’s implanted in the lunar regolith by the Sun- but is massive operation similar to if going to mine He-3, one gets a tiny amount He-3 and thousands of times more He-4 and hydrogen.
Anyhow the Moon needs hydrogen and tanks to mine water and get surplus of oxygen- which is 6 times the mass the hydrogen when used as rocket fuel- or if you make cheap lunar LOX, the higher price of LH2 can result in cheap rocket fuel. Or rocket fuel is cheap on Earth because LOX is cheap on Earth- about 10 cents kg, or $100 per ton.
Cheap Lunar LOX, starts at about $1 million per ton or $1000 per kg.
Also Mars needs LH2 {and tanks and nuclear fuel}.
On Mars one combines Hydrogen with atmospheric CO2 to get methane rocket fuel- and split water to get the oxygen. Also compressing hydrogen into LH2 costs about 15 kw hour per kg of LH2, making LOX from Oxygen is cheap in terms of electrical power needed.

Reply to  MarkW
December 2, 2020 5:53 pm

A lot of 1950s science fiction predicted nuclear powered rockets that superheated water and used the resultant super-steam as a drive.

Gordon A. Dressler
December 1, 2020 8:47 am

Ahhhhh . . . missions to the Moon are not usually referred to as “deep space missions”.

The USA is still the dominant player in deep space missions, but Japan and ESA are coming on strong with their various recent (within the last 15 years) missions to asteroids and comets.

BTW, to the best of my knowledge, no competent launch vehicle engineer is seriously proposing using NERVA-type rocket engines to power the first stage of any launch vehicle due to the human and environmental dangers that would occur from an explosive launch pad failure, in-flight first stage failure, or in-flight commanded destruct being necessary. There are also major technical and safety issues that are currently unresolved with using NERVA-type rocket engines for upper stages of launch vehicles.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Paul of Alexandria
December 2, 2020 7:12 am

PoA, your link goes to a short article which contains this statement:
“Alexander Bloshenko says the nuclear-powered space tug’s – propelled by electric engines – first flight will be a full-fledged scientific mission that will deliver a research satellite to the Moon and head for Venus.”

Having ion engines fed by electricity generated by a nuclear reactor is a matter completely different from that of using nuclear reactor thermal heat (Nerva-like concepts) or the reaction force from a nearby nuclear explosion (Orion-like concepts) to generate propulsive thrust.

December 1, 2020 8:51 am

A second nation wasting a small fortune to get moon dust and moon rocks.
Going to the moon is a total wast of taxpayers’ money
Nothing of value there.

Reply to  Richard Greene
December 1, 2020 9:21 am

The moon is the logical launch pad for the rest of the solar system and beyond.

Paul of Alexandria
Reply to  Richard Greene
December 1, 2020 10:05 am

Lots of value there, especially the location. As MarW said, it’s the launch pad for the solar system.

Reply to  Paul of Alexandria
December 2, 2020 6:30 pm

wasting money for the purpose of wasting more money?

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Paul of Alexandria
December 2, 2020 9:57 pm

“. . . it’s the launch pad for the solar system.”

Well, that’s clearly debatable. There is a LOT of energy wasted in sending hardware and propellant mass to the surface of Moon with a “soft landing”, and then having to boost that same mass out of the Moon’s gravitational well.

There is also the issue of whether or not that Moon-surface launch will required human or robotic infrastructure on the Moon’s surface to support the proposed lunar launch . . . and how many $trillions are required to put that infrastructure/those people on the Moon’s surface in the first place?

Most detailed studies that objectively look at optimizing launch site location while minimizing total cost show that Earth’s surface IS “the launch pad for the solar system” because it is already habitable, with readily available resources (materials, propellants, life support needs, manufacturing capability and capacity, manual labor, etc.) at hand and at relatively low cost relative to any off-Earth site.

Nothing leaves Earth without first having to climb out of Earth’s gravity well. Why complicate that simple fact?

December 1, 2020 9:07 am

Why rely on just the Soviets? Biden will sell them any technology they want. Provided his Hunter gets the kickbacks.

December 1, 2020 9:16 am

Where is the video?

December 1, 2020 9:16 am

For deep space missions, ion drives sound more efficient. Of course putting a nuclear reactor on board the space craft would make the ion drive more powerful.

December 1, 2020 9:17 am


Yep, with new admin in the U.S. NASA will likely take a $$$$ hit. Elon is gonna take the lead, the demons can gnash their teeth.

Elon seems “driven”, and if NASA doesn’t pay or subsidize, looks like he will get enuf $$ from many customers who pay lots less to get into orbit than anybody else in the world. Go see what ULA and the Russians charge.

Seems NASA has a Bezos contract for our new lunar lander, but I would not be surprised if Elon did it on his own like he did with the Falcon series. Blue has still to get to orbit and return, but Space X is not looking over their shoulder. They are now not only technologically but logistically ahead of anybody.

As far as leaving Earth, it is not only about dreaming. Some folks think there are valuable minerals out there in the asteroids to harvest. Guess who will get there first? Besides, are there any Covid particles on Mars or the moon?

Gums sends…

Paul of Alexandria
Reply to  Gums
December 1, 2020 10:01 am

SpaceX already is planning to use the Starship for lunar landings.

Peta of Newark
December 1, 2020 9:32 am

Epic. I want one

NOT because I feel a hankering to be a dominant player or even have any significant urge to ‘Go Deep’ :-/

(The Moon is ‘deep’??? Good grief, where does that put (even just) Alpha Centauri)

I want Moon Dirt because it will be THE most fertile plant-growing stuff since fertile plant growing dirt was first ever come upon. Ever
And that great big fcuk off Moon is made of it

Just for starters get me 10 Gigatonne and a large tractor (John Deere, you listening. You *did* create this trainwreck Climate Thing after all with your ‘Steel Plow’)

By my calcs, that gets me 100 tonnes per acre to cover The Sahara.
I may be wrong – 100tonne per acre is THE figure. Bring back dirt to fill that order.

I’m sorry peeps but, NO MATTER HOW HARD your Magical Thinking, a few drops of water and ‘some’ wafts of CO2 will NOT turn it back into a garden. Not ever. A few volcanoes or meteor strikes maybe.

10Gt moon dirt might make a start. Ma Nature will do the rest.
Trust me, I’m a peasant and NO, a computer model did NOT tell me this.

Paul of Alexandria
December 1, 2020 9:58 am

1) the nuclear engines will most probably be used for in-space propulsion. Russia has already announced a nuclear space tug for precisely this purpose.,the%20project%20name%20Transport%20and%20Energy%20Module%20%28TEM.%29

2) This isn’t (just) about bragging rights and scientific inquiry. Whoever controls the Moon controls Earth orbit, and has the military high ground for operations against both the orbitals and the Earth’s surface. (See Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”). Also, given China’s need for resources, the Moon – in addition to its own resources- is the gateway to asteroid mining, solar-power satellites, and colonization of the solar system.

Remember, the Chinese think very long-term, decades and even centuries.

Reply to  Paul of Alexandria
December 1, 2020 1:45 pm

At first instance China can buy a 25-50 years lease of Siberia from Russia, and when they militarily overtake Russia, that is not too far away, China can just simply invade it. There is plenty of everything there they need at least until the end of century.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Vuk
December 3, 2020 7:08 pm

“. . . and when they militarily overtake Russia . . .”

Ummmm, would that be around the time they begin glowing in the dark?

Tombstone Gabby
Reply to  Paul of Alexandria
December 2, 2020 7:29 pm

Paul of A. just suggests, quietly, See Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”

I would go further and say that story is mandatory reading for anyone who hasn’t considered just how high that military “high ground” really is. No explosives needed – just rocks, arriving at terminal velocity at earth’s surface.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Tombstone Gabby
December 2, 2020 10:21 pm

With all due respect to Heinlein, the “rocks-from-the-Moon bombardment” scenario has never adequately considered (a) the amount of propellant required to launch that mass to Earth from the lunar surface, and (b) the precision guidance required to hit any given spot on Earth with lunar rocks, especially if they are irregular in shape and are each lacking active “on board” guidance, navigation and propulsive control systems.

Then too, those lunar bombardment rocks must not be so thermo-structurally weak that they would break up and/or burn up during travel through Earth’s atmosphere.

Tombstone Gabby
Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
December 3, 2020 1:19 pm

G’Day Gorden. Giving part of the story away. The moon is settled with convicts. They grow wheat in tunnels. The wheat is sent to earth in iron containers, launched by a magnetic rail gun. Guidance and retro rockets are fitted, computer controlled to land in the ocean. The ‘means’ are already in place in the story. Loading rock in place of wheat – and leaving the retros off – a lot of ergs delivered to the surface.

This is a book for adults, not one of his adventure books aimed at a teenage audience. Even has one of the characters give a definition of a ‘rational anarchist’ – and how to run an election with a ‘self-aware’ computer. This book, along with “Starship Troopers”, is deeply philosophical, and both are well worth reading in light of the current state of the world.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Tombstone Gabby
December 3, 2020 7:02 pm

And g’day back at you, TG.

In response to you expanding on the design of those “payloads” launched/threatened to be launched by those dirty lunar terrorists in Heinlein’s SF story, three things:

1) So, indeed, those terrorist projectiles are not “just rocks” but rather sophisticated spacecraft that just happen to be carrying lunar rocks.

1) Any competent mechanical engineer in the Moon colony would suggest that instead of launching hollowed out “containers” that were originally designed to be filled with wheat (but are filled with lunar rocks/soil in offensive mode) they simply be manufactured to be solid iron at the same launch mass . . . after all, there must be plenty of iron being mined on the Moon for such a one-way transportation system to be feasible, right? Such modification would give the projectiles a much higher ballistic coefficient and therefore much greater energy delivery at Earth’s impact spot.

2) Any lunar terrorists threatening or executing such a bombardment act against Earth’s nation(s) must be aware of the possibility of nuclear fission or fusion bomb retaliation. Not that hard, today or in the future, to launch a chemical rocket toward the Moon’s surface that carries multiple, independently targeted nuclear warheads. Certainly, Earth’s inhabitants, combined, must have a MUCH BIGGER strike force than the lunar colony . . . or did Heinlein argue that wheat in his imagined future was valuable beyond everything else and/or Earth’s nation(s) had no retaliatory strike capability???

I likely could not read “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” today without wincing.

Tombstone Gabby
Reply to  Tombstone Gabby
December 3, 2020 8:12 pm

I don’t know if this will show up above or below your comment at 7:02pm.

Wincing? Can’t help you with that. Might be doing a bit myself in a day or three. Thrift store yesterday – between my wife and I, $20 of used books. One of the books – “Mix-Up At The O.K. Corral” by Preston Lewis – copyright 1996. Home is about three blocks north of the Corral.

Also bought: “Dreadnought” by Robert K. Massie, naval history, WW1, 1007 pages including the index (1991), and “A Complete Geography” by Tarr and McMurry, original copyright 1900. I read, most anything that sounds interesting, and doesn’t cost too much. A meal without a book is just a plain waste of time.


December 1, 2020 10:01 am

I don’t believe the statement that Russia has developed a nuclear launch technology can be verified. What goes backward to make the rocket go forwards enough to lift it to orbit? Yes, an ion drive for space is fine, only light gravity to overcome away from a planet. And it’s not fission as I understand it. Or is it? But not for leaving the planet.

And it is in fact low energy so takes as long to slow down as it does to speed up. Just the physics. The programs with manned aircraft and land vehicles demonstrated nuclear power to be impractical, particularly when it came to leaving the ground and significant shielding was not possible in aircraft so manned vehicles were out.

Ships and subs have no problem with weight as they just float about without any energy being supplied. Same as a blue whale. So all their fins are needed for is propulsion and control, hence they are small, except for the propulsion bit.

Someone somewhere made it very hard for the fauna to get off the planet, live naturally on most of the other planets, or live long enough to get to most other star systems, to keep us here using a distortion in space time to hold us down and keep our air on.

So space travel beyond Earth surveys and communications appears a waste of time and money when the next ice age is coming in a few thousand years. I suggest we have better uses for our treasure and science preparing the World for the mass exodus South of everyone above 40 degs North in the Northern hemisphere as the ice scrapes our brief Northern hemisphere civilisation away or makes the land frozen tundra. THAT’s climate change. Coming soon, Earth time wise.

Luciano de Souza
December 1, 2020 10:18 am

If China and Russia switch to nuclear rockets the US will never catch them up, as generations of Westerners were brainwashed with “nukes bad”.

Curious George
December 1, 2020 1:20 pm

China will repeat the task the Soviets achieved 50 years ago. The US space supremacy is gone!

December 1, 2020 4:41 pm

No, what Japan’s JAXA is doing right now with the asteroid-sample-return mission Hayabusa2, set to land back on Earth this Saturday December 6, is truely ground-breaking. As any of my NASA and ESA colleagues will tell you, any interaction with a China space scientist or space engineer is a one-way street: they are only interested in taking information from you. We refer to their missions using the Mandarin phrase for “stolen technology”.

Tom Abbott
Reply to  JaneHM
December 2, 2020 4:58 am

The Chicoms didn’t have to steal all their space technology. In the case of former President Bill Clinton, he just sold the rocket technology to the Chicoms.

The Chicoms, when they first started trying to become a space power, kept blowing up their rockets on the launch pad, so Bill Clinton thought it would be a good idea to have Americans go over and show the Chicoms how to fix their problems, since the satellites mounted on these failed rockets were American satellites..

The big impetus to help the Chinese was of course, money, in one form or another, and for one reason of another. At the time, the Chicoms was offering launch services that were cheaper than Western launch services. This is typical Chicom behavior to undersell the competition in order to drive them out of business even if underselling means the Chicoms lose money for a time.

Rather than insist that American companies launch their satellites on American launchers, Clinton decided to help the competition, the Chicoms, and he undercut American launch services. He did so for campaign contributions from American launch companies and the Chicoms.

No :America First” in Bill Clinton’s world.

So the Chinese can thank a criminal US president for their current progress in space.

I bet the Chicoms are trying like hell to break into Musk’s computers. The Chicoms wouldn’t have anything if they couldn’t steal it, or bribe someone out of it. They are supposedly these great innovators, but all they can really do is steal other people’s ideas. They are real good at theft. I guess that is one thing all those on the political Left have in common.

December 1, 2020 5:52 pm

So bringing back a couple pounds of rocks from the moon is a challenge to space supremacy??

I am pretty sure we did that several decades ago. It is quite a jump to say this leads to China having factories operating on the moon in ten years. Who writes this stuff??

December 1, 2020 6:09 pm

[q]becoming the first mission to bring lunar samples to Earth since 1976[/q]
Yawn. Been there, done that. 51 years ago. Freedom and capitalism gets you there a lot faster than socialism and repression.

December 1, 2020 8:40 pm

So China is on the verge of possibly matching a feat that we achieved over 50 years ago? *yawn*

Reply to  WR2
December 1, 2020 8:42 pm

wish I scrolled down further before posting to see several have the same thought as me! China’s space program is the least of our worries with them. I’m more worried about their unfathonable diplomatic efforts in APAC in the face of their unleashing such a pandemic, their new colonization program with 3rd world countries, as well as their growing military might.

Geoff Sherrington
December 1, 2020 10:43 pm

Realistically, I sit in that large group of scientists who are hard and practical, Thirty years exploring Earth for wanted mew mineral resources was adequate to educate me as to the sheer futility and enormous cost:benefit failures of mining asteroids or the moon even using rough ball park figures. Nobody seem to know what valuable minerals might be out there, so we are reduced to the mentality of dreaming after reading a comic book. In reality, there is a probabil;ity that nothing out there will prove to be worth mining.
Science in the last 30 years has had a sickness whereby too many incompetent scientists have been given far too much money to perform quasi-scientific acts to bolster their incomes. Standards, especially in climate science, have dropped. Children are seldom educated enough these days to pass simple entrance exams for the hard sciences.
It is partly driven by the academic arts mob, those who could not make it to enriol in hard science. Fresh in my mind of how horrible academic arts have become, please read and study this.

It is an article about how arts academics, even professors, are being paid by taxpayers to invent how, to publicise and to make it OK to lie about yourself to gather in that money and fame (whatever fame is, these days). It is depressing, so be warned.
Then, use it as an example of how low academia has plunged and how the worst might yet be ahead of us in the search for more high quality hard science that can be replicated, that has significance in that findings can help benefit all people, nut just the person with the academic grant. Geoff S

Reply to  Geoff Sherrington
December 2, 2020 3:58 pm

“In reality, there is a probability that nothing out there will prove to be worth mining.”

The current problem is the cost of mining something in space which is related to the current cost to leave Earth.
Due to current cost to leave Earth, lunar water is worth about $500,000 per ton, on the lunar surface {not worth this if brought back to Earth}.
There might be more than 1 million tons of mineable water on the Moon. And this doesn’t mean 500,000 x 1,000,000 = 500 billion dollars.
But it does mean 500,000 x 10,000 tons is probably worth about 5 billion dollars and that over time the price of lunar water will decrease, due to lowering costs to mine lunar water and competition and lowering of launch cost to leave Earth.

One talk about something different and sort of similar. The current price of lunar material is about $1000 per gram. If one shipped 10 tons of lunar material to Earth each gram could be worth about $50 per gram {around the price of gold}, one reason lunar material would worth less is because there is expectation of lower price of lunar material in the future, but there is also possible that lunar material one buys to today at $50 is worth $50 per gram or more in the future. If instead of 10 tons shipped in one year, one shipped 1000 tons in one year, it probably would not be worth $50 per gram, but perhaps it’s worth $10 per gram or less {Silver is worth less than $1 per gram}.

So issue of shipping more lunar material to earth and having the price lower, is not a bad thing. One might think wildly fluctuation of any price or anything as “bad” but it seems having lower price of lunar material for anyone who wants it, is better than not having available or difficult to get.
But want to get back to value of something at destination like the lunar surface, it likewise will not be bad thing to have lower priced lunar water in the future, and would say “the promise” of lower price lunar in future, makes present of lunar water “worth more”. And roughly speaking it related to over priced Amazon stock, say 10 years ago.
Or stock markets will realize that lower price lunar water in to future, make now stocks of lunar water mining company worth more due to lower costs and price in the future.
Or if you knew {somehow} that lunar water could sell for $100 per kg in 10 years in future and means lower lunar rocket fuel in 10 year in the future, you probably want to get involved with anything related to any party doing anything on the Moon- including lunar water mining. Or lunar companies are growth companies.

But at moment we don’t know if the lunar polar region has mineable water, and what is mineable water is can sell enough of it, and could sell at about $500 per kg.
And selling enough it is related to the “very cheap price” of $500,000 per ton.
Now the lunar polar region might allow being able to sell lunar water for less than $500 per kg, which would good news, but if have sell it at higher price, that not very promising for it’s future.
And if you sell lunar water around $500 per kg, it also means would sell other stuff- like iron ore and/or some other metal ore. They have value on Moon as metal and their oxygen, any oxygen sold as LOX, should worth about $1000 per kg, and metal should be worth less than that per kg. And metal fabricated into something needed on the Moon could be worth could more than $1000 kg. But likewise such things will worth less in the future, and cheaper they can be, the better {the more a company making things out metal can make them cheaper in future, the more the company is worth which selling at the higher price, now.}
But prices are constrained by reality or some party just dumping a lot investment dollar into making it cheaper, faster – to capture more of a supposed/imagined future market- which of course, has risks, and generally requiring luck/skill.
Backing up a bit. If the Moon has market for rocket fuel at around $1000 per kg, that provide market for rocket fuel in high earth orbit, and deliver water from somewhere else in space, at less than $1000 per kg {shipping Lunar LOX or Lunar water to lunar orbit cost more than this, if lunar water is $500 per kg] could done. It probably would result in “over supply” of water in high earth orbit- but that would “good news” any lunar business- including lunar water miners.

Jim G
December 2, 2020 5:36 pm

The moon?
Been there, done that.
With 12 people and probes.
We have also had 11 probes since 2001.

Yea, been there too. And then on to rendezvous with a KBO.

Oh yea, the Voyager rockets from the 1970’s?
They’ve left the Solar System.

Everyone else has some catching up to do to claim “surpassing the USA.”

Besides, they do need to have something to spend the trade deficit on.

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