Above: An artist rendering shows the Orion spacecraft (left) approaching the orbital lunar gateway station—two key components in NASA’s new plan to return humans to the moon.
NASA’s new Artemis program is probably the most ambitious space exploration effort to date and is on track to return humans to the lunar surface for the first time in a half century.
Unlike its predecessor, Apollo, the objectives of Artemis stretch far beyond visiting and researching the moon. While the Apollo missions accomplished six human landings between 1969 and 1972, Artemis aims to send humans back for good, establishing a base in unexplored territory and an orbiting lunar gateway. NASA has pinned 2024 as its target date for the next human landing, marking the beginning of a multi-phase project that will build up infrastructure, life support systems and gather important scientific data to help humans better understand how to live and work beyond Earth. The landing site will be the moon’s South Pole, a region with pockets of water ice in permanently shadowed craters. With refinement, the water would provide valuable resources like drinking water, oxygen and rocket fuel.
Artemis is planned in three phases, including an initial launch of instruments and technologies to the moon to prepare for human arrivals, followed by an uncrewed Orion spacecraft test run and the first of many crewed missions. Astronauts will largely rely on an orbiting lunar gateway station, which will provide a transfer point between Earth and the moon, as well as a base for communications and research. NASA says it will have sustainable human missions in place by 2028.
In May, the agency selected three companies to furnish landers and services to the moon under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts. These instruments will aid in pinpointing lander sites, measure radiation in the lunar environment, support navigation, and assess the impacts of robotic and human activity on the moon.
NASA is also leveraging partnerships with other countries to achieve its goals. The agency met with Japan’s space agency JAXA earlier this year to discuss collaborating on the lunar gateway. Last month, The Australian Space Agency made a formal commitment to NASA and will triple its budget to support the Artemis program.
Ultimately, NASA’s new program will prove new technologies and capabilities to make a human mission to Mars successful. With the moon only three days away from Earth (compared with up to three years round-trip to Mars), astronauts can take another small step for mankind before attempting the next giant leap.
Author: Chris Yoakum, PISCES PIO