While NASA’s ultimate goal is to put a man on Mars and lay the foundation to explore deep-space destinations, it also wants to beat the Chinese to the Moon, encourage private enterprise and inspire the next generation
On 20 July, 1969, NASA in its greatest triumph, landed a man on the Moon.
The next few years saw the space agency send a slew of missions to the Moon – 12 Apollo astronauts walked on it, staying no longer than three days at a time – concluding with Apollo 17 in December 1972.
Now, 50 years later, NASA is returning to the Moon with its aptly named Artemis program (Apollo’s twin sister in mythology).
Wednesday saw the space agency’s brand-new rocket and capsule blast off with three test dummies aboard.
If all goes well during the three-week, make-or-break shakedown flight, the crew capsule will be propelled into a wide orbit around the Moon and then return to Earth with a Pacific splashdown in December.
But why is NASA returning to the Moon?
Let’s take a closer look:
The Red Planet beckons
NASA’s ultimate goal is to put a man on Mars and to prepare the way for exploring deep-space destinations.
“We are all part of something incredibly special,” launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson was quoted as saying after lift-off. “The first launch of Artemis. The first step in returning our country to the Moon and on to Mars.”
As the NASA website puts it, “In going to the Moon, NASA is laying the foundation that will eventually enable human exploration of Mars. The Moon will provide a proving ground to test technologies and resources that will take humans to Mars and beyond, including building a sustainable, reusable architecture.”
For Artemis, NASA is doing this by drawing from a diverse astronaut pool and is extending the time crews spend on the Moon to at least a week.
NASA wants to develop a sustainable human presence on the Moon, with missions lasting several weeks — compared to just a few days for Apollo. The goal: to better understand how to prepare for a multi-year round trip to Mars.
In deep space, radiation is much more intense and poses a real threat to health. Low Earth Orbit, where the International Space Station (ISS) operates, is partly shielded from radiation by the Earth’s magnetic field, which isn’t the case on the Moon.
From the first Artemis mission, many experiments are planned to study the impact of this radiation on living organisms, and to assess the effectiveness of an anti-radiation vest. What’s more, while the ISS can often be resupplied, trips to the Moon — a thousand times further — are much more complex. To avoid having to take everything with them, and to save costs, NASA wants to learn how to use the resources present on the surface.
In particular, water in the form of ice, which has been confirmed to exist on the lunar south pole, could be transformed into rocket fuel by cracking it into its separate hydrogen and oxygen atoms.
Political will, maintaining lead over China, private enterprise
In 1962, then US president John F Kennedy, shocked many when he announced his plan to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.
It was the height of the Cold War and America needed a big victory to demonstrate its space superiority after the Soviet Union had launched the first satellite and put the first man in orbit.
“We choose to go to the Moon,” Kennedy told 40,000 people at Rice University, “because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
Now, with China as the US’ main competition today – with the once proud Russian space program has withered away – President Joe Biden seems to be making a similar, albeit far more low-key push.
The CHIPS and Science Act, recently signed into law by President Biden, calls for NASA to include the vehicles in plans to send astronauts to Mars, and directs the agency to launch SLS at least once a year, as per The New York Times.
The Chinese, incidentally, plan to send taikonauts to the Moon by the year 2030.
“We don’t want China suddenly getting there and saying, “This is our exclusive territory,’” NASA boss Bill Nelson said in a recent interview.
Casey Dreier, the chief policy adviser for the Planetary Society, a non-profit that promotes space exploration noted the political will behind Artemis, saying “Congress has done nothing but add more money to Artemis every single year it’s been in existence.”
Drier added that despite its flaws, the Artemis program employs workers at NASA and aerospace companies across the country – which alone ensures political support.
NASA also wants to encourage private enterprise in space exploration.
As its website reads, “NASA is going to the Moon with commercial and international partners to explore faster and explore more together. This work will bring new knowledge and opportunities and inspire the next generation.”
Testing new gear
NASA also wants to test on the Moon the technologies that will continue to evolve for a mission to Mars. First, new spacesuits for spacewalks.
Their design was entrusted to the company Axiom Space for the first crewed mission to the Moon, in 2025 at the earliest. Other needs: vehicles — both pressurized and unpressurized — so that the astronauts can move around, as well as a fixed habitat at the lunar base camp.
Finally, for sustainable access to an energy source, NASA is working on the development of portable nuclear fission systems. Solving any problems that arise will be much easier on the Moon, only a few days away, than on Mars, which can only be reached after at least several months of voyage.
Establishing a waypoint
A major pillar of the Artemis program is the construction of a space station in orbit around the Moon, called Gateway, which will serve as a relay before the trip to Mars. All the necessary equipment can be sent there in “multiple launches,” before finally being joined by the crew to set off on the long voyage, said Sean Fuller, who is responsible for the Gateway program.
“Kind of like you’re stopping at your gas station to make sure you get all the stuff, and then you’re off on your way.”
While the Apollo missions brought back to Earth nearly 400 kilograms of lunar rock, new samples will make it possible to further deepen our knowledge of this celestial object and its formation.
“The samples that we collected during the Apollo missions changed the way we view our solar system,” astronaut Jessica Meir said. “I think we can expect that from the Artemis program as well.”
She expects further scientific and technological breakthroughs too, just like during the Apollo era.
Artemis vs Apollo
While NASA using 1960s technology took a scant eight years to go from launching its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, and landing Armstrong and Aldrin on the Apollo moon mission, Artemis already has dragged on for more than a decade.
This despite Artemis building on the short-lived moon exploration program Constellation.
The price tag for the test flight is more than $4 billion.
With inputs from agencies
This article originally appeared on https://www.firstpost.com/ and was reproduced here with permission