NASA’s moving out. To the Moon. Or at least, that’s how NASA’s recent “year of progress” update on the Artemis program concluded. About a week after that video launched, they also released a detailed report titled “NASA’s Plan for Sustained Lunar Exploration and Development.” The 13-page document lays out a general framework for NASA’s future moon missions, and describes not only their plan to return to the Moon by 2024 but also to establish a sustained human presence in orbit around it and on its surface.
This human return to the Moon has been a part of NASA’s plans for a long time now. Still, the timeline was moved up by the Trump administration in late 2017, as part of the Space Policy Directive, which instructed NASA to “[lead] an innovative and sustainable program of exploration… Beginning with missions beyond low-Earth orbit, the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.”
The program is named Artemis (Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology), and consists of three main components: human landings, the Lunar Base, and the Gateway. The first step of that plan, the human mission to the lunar surface planned for 2024, takes a different approach than previous moon missions, featuring many of the mission’s components delivered to the Moon beforehand, by commercial and international partners. The human missions also feature several new technologies NASA has been developing for the next frontiers of human space exploration—the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever created, and the Orion crew capsule to go with it.
Initially, NASA had planned to incorporate the Gateway project into this mission, but announced in early March that it had “been removed from the critical path.” The Gateway project is a plan for a space station in orbit around the Moon, designed with open docking standards that allow space programs from all around the world to add modules to the station and expand its functionality, much like the International Space Station in orbit around Earth. According to Doug Loverro, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight directorate, “by taking Gateway out of the critical path for the lunar landing in ’24, I believe what we have done is create a far better Gateway program,” he told the NASA Advisory Council on March 13, reported SpaceNews.
The Gateway is still a very important component of NASA’s larger plan, however. The purpose of the Gateway is partially for deep-space experimentation, but also to serve as an important jumping-off point for longer-term missions to the Moon and Mars. For moon missions, not only would the gateway act as a strong communications relay with Earth, but astronauts working aboard the Gateway could control robots on the lunar surface remotely in real-time, something that we cannot do from Earth due to the eight-minute communication delay between the Earth and the Moon.
Additionally, lunar landers could be delivered to the station separately by commercial partners instead of incorporating them into the rocket that carries the astronauts to lunar orbit, which could create substantial cost savings for repeat lunar missions.
The Moon has ice deposits at its poles, which could be split into hydrogen and oxygen, the two components of rocket fuel, and launched to the Gateway. Thus, the Gateway could serve as a critical refueling station for future missions to Mars.
All going to plan, once humans have been successfully sent to and brought back from the Moon, and the Gateway is in place, NASA has ambitious plans to establish a base for extended human habitation on the Moon at the lunar south pole. This is an exciting opportunity and one that would act as not only a proving ground for future human missions to Mars, where methods and equipment could be perfected, but also a critical achievement in its own right. As discussed earlier, the Moon’s low gravity and ability to produce rocket fuel that can be cheaply lifted into orbit will almost certainly be critical to further human exploration of the solar system. On top of that, the Moon offers promising opportunities for commercial activity and mining: the rare isotope helium-3 is rare on Earth, but abundant on the Moon, and could prove to be an essential fuel for fusion reactors in the future. Furthermore, constant asteroid impacts on the Moon have left it rich in rare earth metals used in smartphone screens and countless other technological applications.
The report concludes, “Artemis and the development of Artemis Base Camp will inspire the world with the ability and commitment of American leadership and in the positive potential of humanity as a whole. If we are to leave a legacy of greatness, hope, limitless opportunity, and growth to future generations, then it is a mission we cannot afford to postpone.”
NASA is already making progress towards these goals: they awarded SpaceX a contract on March 27 to deliver cargo to the Gateway, Maxar Technologies a contract for its power and propulsion systems, and many more for a variety of companies to deliver cargo to the lunar surface. NASA has also tested the Orion crew capsule and the rocket engines for the Space Launch System and completed the development of their new Artemis-generation spacesuits.
All the same, whether the project will hit its goals on time and in-budget remains uncertain. The coronavirus outbreak has slowed operations, and the five-year deadline that the Trump administration laid out is much earlier than NASA had previously planned. On top of that, NASA is trying to do all of this on a budget, adjusted for inflation, roughly half of what it was during the height of the Apollo missions, or an eighth compared to total federal spending. All that said, despite the obstacles, the project currently appears to be on track.
All going well, we will soon be witness to the first woman to walk on the Moon and the first man in over 50 years. After that, only time can tell what the future may hold: in the far future, a moon colony could even become self-sufficient, and you could look up at a crescent moon to see the lights of cities sparkling in the darkness. Who knows, that might even shut the flat-earthers up once and for all.