If you are old enough, you may remember the space race of the 1960s. This was a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union that became an important part of the Cold War. It effectively began in 1957, with a victory by the Soviet Union. On October 4th of that year, they launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to be put into orbit. This was followed by further Soviet successes, putting the first man into orbit, the first two-man flight, the first spacewalk, and the first unmanned probe to reach the vicinity of the moon.
The United States finally surpassed the Soviet Union with its Apollo missions, eventually putting twelve astronauts on the moon, the only humans (so far) to ever walk on its surface. When the last American left the moon in 1972, the space race was essentially over, until now.
In January of 2006, Russia announced its intention to build a permanent base on the moon by 2015. Not to be outdone, NASA is planning to build what it calls an international base camp on one of the moon's poles and staff it by 2024. China and Japan also intend to build lunar stations. Why the new race to a place that no one has seemed interested in visiting for the past 25 years? Rather than national glory, this time it seems to be more of a commercial enterprise. Russia and China have both stated publicly that one of the main goals of their programs is the mining of helium-3. Although NASA has not been as open about their interest in this helium isotope, the United States also recognizes its potential value. This non-radioactive element is believed to be a primary candidate for the fuel in clean power generation using a fusion reactor.
There's only one small problem (two if you count the fact that it is rare to find helium-3 anywhere on earth). So far, no one has ever built a commercial fusion reactor, even one that uses deuterium and tritium, which is the more traditional approach. Nuclear fusion using helium-3, while more environmentally friendly, is also even harder to accomplish. While a deuterium-tritium reactor requires temperatures around 100 million to 200 million degrees, a helium-3 reaction would need temperatures five times hotter. No one has yet determined a practical way of accomplishing this. Space agencies are gambling that by the time they get the fuel, someone will have figured out how to use it.
While helium-3 is a rare substance on earth, it seems to be more abundant on the moon, with some reports saying that there are millions of tons of the stuff. While recent years have seen impressive examples of international cooperation in space, the present signs seem to indicate that the quest for moon helium is going to be the old space race all over again, except with more competitors.
It's interesting to note that in 1979 the UN drafted a treaty governing the activities on the moon and other celestial bodies. To date, none of the major space faring nations has ratified it. The race to industrialize the moon might be summed up by a statement made by the chief scientist in China's lunar program. He said, "Whoever conquers the moon first will be the first to benefit."
The idea in 1979 was that the moon belonged to all of mankind; certainly everyone today could benefit by a new, clean source of energy. In addition, considering the expense involved in going there, establishing a mining operation, and figuring out the best way to use the isotope once they get it, a joint operation would seem to make the most sense. However it ends up being accomplished, assuming that it does, it will be interesting to see if the gamble involved in the new space race pays the expected dividends, or ends up being just a huge waste of money.