Why NASA wants to go back to the moon

These include the development of the Gateway robotics and crew habitat modules, as well as a lunar rover, all of which could be precursors for future technologies on Mars. Next-generation spacesuits, to be developed by Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace, will feature enhanced life support and communications systems and allow for additional mobility.

Assuming the early Artemis missions are successful, more components will be sent to the lunar station on subsequent trips, and astronauts will be deployed for longer forays on the lunar floor, possibly lasting weeks. “As we carry out these missions, they become more and more complex. And so the infrastructure to support them is getting more and more complex,” Koerner says.

Although no passengers will travel on Artemis 1, the capsule will carry three mannequins. The male, named Commander Moonikin Campos thanks to a public naming contest, has been used for Orion vibration testing. He will fly alongside two female mannequin torsos, made of materials that mimic the bones, soft tissues and organs of an adult woman. They will all be equipped with sensors for detecting space radiation, as prolonged exposure can harm the health of astronauts. (The European Space Agency, which works with NASA during the flight, is sending a doll of Shaun the sheep.)

The mission will also deploy 10 shoebox-sized spacecraft called CubeSats, some of which will map the moon’s surface and study the ice packs, while others will test a space radiation shield or advance to more distant places, such as a asteroid near the earth.

The Artemis project will also serve as a testing ground for technologies developed through public-private partnerships. NASA has already partnered with Terran Orbital and Rocket Lab to launch a small spacecraft known as Capstone, which is currently exploring the future orbit of the Lunar Gateway. Maxar Technologies of Westminster, Colorado, will provide Gateway’s power and propulsion, while Northrop Grumman of Dulles, Virginia, is working on the HALO module, a small area where the first Gateway astronauts will live and conduct research. SpaceX will launch both on a Falcon Heavy rocket in late 2024.

Grand programs also create opportunities for global diplomacy and space agency relations. NASA is working with many international partners on Artemis, with the European Space Agency providing Orion’s service module on Artemis 1 and collaborating on Gateway’s I-HAB. The Japanese space agency is developing a cargo-supply spacecraft for Gateway and is exploring the concept of a pressurized lunar rover, in which astronauts could take off their bulky spacesuits. The Canadian space agency is designing a robotic arm for the station. A total of 21 countries have also signed the Artemis Accords, the US government’s effort to establish best practices for future international lunar exploration.

Still, a project as ambitious as returning to the moon is not always a political winner. It’s expensive, for starters. Some critics, such as former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, have cited the ballooning cost of building its own Space Launch System — at a time when SpaceX is developing the cheaper Super Heavy rocket along with the reusable Starship spacecraft.

And programs spanning many presidential administrations with different space priorities can be vulnerable to changing political winds. Sometimes a program does not survive a change of power in the White House. Former US Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump — who initiated the Artemis program — favored lunar missions, while former President Barack Obama focused on launching humans to Mars. “Artemis has spanned multiple presidential administrations, so that bodes well. But there are still a lot of unknowns and it’s a big investment,” said Teasel Muir-Harmony, space historian and curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

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