Back in the heady days of the Apollo missions, it seemed almost inevitable that those astounding but brief trips to the Moon would be followed by something more permanent. But the notion of colonies soon proved to be science fantasy. After the last of 12 astronauts left their boot prints in the lunar dust in 1972, the US government and taxpayers collectively declared, "been there, done that". America had scored a dazzling point over the Soviet Union but at eye-watering cost, so the final three planned Apollo missions were cancelled.
For a while, our nearest neighbour in space seemed rather unappealing. But then, over recent years, came a series of discoveries about the lunar dust itself, suggesting that the Moon holds water and minerals that could conceivably help support a settlement, if anyone has the appetite to pay for it. So a new batch of missions is under way. China seems to be particularly eager, launching increasingly capable robotic craft that could pave the way for human flights, sometime in the 2030s.
In all probability, the next boots on the Moon will be Chinese. One of China's leading space scientists told me how he even envisages opening lunar mines to extract valuable resources such as Helium-3. Throughout history, humanity has gazed at the Moon through different eyes. In the 1960s, it was the scene for Cold War rivalry. Now it is seen as a potential staging-post for longer journeys and as a rock waiting to be dug up and exploited.
Prof Mitrofanov says that there are scientific and commercial benefits to be had by building a permanent human presence on the lunar surface.
"It will be for astronomical observation, for the utilisation of minerals and other lunar resources and to create an outpost that can be visited by cosmonauts working together as a test bed for their future flight to Mars."
The south pole of the Moon is unlike anywhere we have been before. You could find large amounts of water ice and other chemistry to support future human missionsDr James Carpenter, Luna 27 lead scientist
Esa and its industrial collaborators are developing a new type of landing system able to target areas far more precisely than the missions in the 1960s and 70s. The so-called "Pilot" system uses on-board cameras to navigate and a laser guidance system which is able to sense the terrain while approaching the surface and be able to decide for itself whether the landing site is safe or not, and if necessary to re-target to a better location.
Europe is also providing the drill which is designed to go down to 2m and collect what might be hard, icy samples. According to Richard Fisackerly, the project's lead engineer, these samples might be harder than reinforced concrete and so the drill will need to be extremely strong.
"We are currently looking at the technologies we would need to penetrate that type of material and are looking at having both rotation and hammering functions. The final architecture has yet to be decided - but this combination of rotation, hammering and depth is a step beyond what we have already flown or is in development today," he told BBC News.
Esa will also provide the onboard miniaturised laboratory, called ProSPA. It will be similar to the instrument on the Philae lander, which touched down on the surface of Comet 67P last year. But ProSPA will be tuned to searching for the key ingredients with which to make water, oxygen, fuel and other materials that can be exploited by future astronauts.
The instrument will help scientists discover out how much of these critical resources are under the surface, and, crucially, whether they can be extracted easily.
person in space. Could a cosmonaut finally make it to the Moon?
Europe's participation in the mission is due to receive final approval at a meeting of ministers in late 2016. It has the strong support of Esa and Roscosmos hierarchy, and the scientists involved in Luna 27 are confident that it is not a question of if but when humans go back to the lunar surface.
"This whole series of missions feels like the beginning of the return to the Moon but it is also starting something new in terms of overall exploration of the Solar System," says Mr Fisackerly.