During this period, at least two space agencies conduct manned exploration of the Moon. This occurs in parallel with private commercial ventures including lunar tourists. The huge length of time since Apollo had led to a perception among the general public that space travel was making little or no progress. In reality, a number of developments were underway.
Perhaps most notable was the rapid emergence of China. In 2003, its first astronaut had been placed into orbit. This was followed by two additional manned missions in 2005 and 2008. Within a decade, China was building its first space station,* while launching probes to the lunar surface including a sample return mission.* The country had even greater ambitions, however, putting its first astronauts on the Moon by the late 2020s.* This would take place in the southern polar region, with abundant solar energy, relatively stable temperatures and the presence of water-ice.*
Russia was making strides too. After years of stagnation, its space program saw a resurgence in the 2010s with a dramatic increase in funding.* A new spaceport was operational by 2018, while rockets were being developed based on cheaper acetylene and ammonia fuel,* along with huge payloads up to 180 tons. By the early 2030s, this combination of better infrastructure and technology, increased funding and government commitment would lead to a manned Russian presence on the Moon.*
The European Space Agency (ESA) was less vocal than other agencies when it came to manned lunar missions. Announced in 2001, its Aurora Programme included the goal of sending astronauts to the Moon and Mars during the late 2020s and early 2030s. However, these plans were quietly dropped after being challenged by ESA’s main financial contributors (France, Germany and Italy). Lacking direction and leadership, the programme became focused on robotic-only exploration of Mars.*
Other nations had shown an interest in manned lunar exploration and even permanent bases – including Japan, India and Iran. However, despite making significant progress, a lack of technical experience and the sheer financial commitment needed would postpone their goals until somewhat further into the future.