An artist concept of a landing near the moon's south pole during the upcoming Artemis missions. Surface expeditions will focus on scientific exploration of the moon and natural resources like water, vital to sustaining future human habitations and outbound voyages to other destinations like the planet Mars. (NASA)
Science fiction has long imagined possibilities of human adventure on the moon, envisioning lunar expeditions, bases, and even cities in the decades leading up to the first Apollo landings. Now, NASA is taking steps to reboot that adventure. The Artemis missions will send men and women to the moon to establish a moon base and test out a long-term lunar residency.
The first three missions of NASA’s Artemis program are set to land the next man and the first woman on the moon by 2024. In the 48 years since the last Apollo moon landing, astronauts have traveled only 200-300 miles above Earth's surface — to the International Space Station and other near-Earth ventures. Many people alive today have not experienced something like this in their lifetimes — including the younger generation of astronauts who are going there!
But this is only the beginning of an expanding human presence on the moon. Unlike the fleeting there-and-back-again trips of the Apollo missions half a century ago, NASA’s new engagement with the moon will include a permanent lunar space station, numerous and ever-longer excursions to the moon’s surface, and ultimately partially self-sustaining habitations for astronauts.
Taking up residence on the moon isn’t NASA’s only goal. The agency's sights are set much farther out on human expeditions to the planet Mars. A big part of the plan is to learn from the experience of living and working at the moon.
First Artemis Flights
NASA plans to launch the uncrewed Artemis I mission in November 2021 to test the spacecraft that will carry astronauts on subsequent missions. The Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift launch rocket and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle are both brand new technology, and need to be proven on an actual moon flight before the first crewed mission.
In 2023, Artemis II will carry four astronauts on a weeklong trip around the moon. Like the first human voyage to the moon in 1968 in Apollo 8, Artemis II will make no landing.
Then, Artemis III makes history.
With a planned launch in October 2024, Artemis III will land its woman and man astronaut team near the moon’s south pole, a region where, in 2008, satellites confirmed water ice exists. One of Artemis III’s top priorities is to investigate exactly where polar water can be found, and how much there is. Water is a commodity far more valuable than gold to future moon-dwelling humans; it’s a source of water to drink, oxygen to breathe, and the chemical components for electric fuel cells and rocket fuel.
What Does Human Residence on the Moon Look Like?
Once the SLS and Orion spacecraft test out as a reliable system to ferry astronauts to and from the moon, the next step on our return will be to place the Lunar Gateway space station into orbit around the moon. The Gateway will be a home and workplace for moon-going astronauts, like a smaller version of the International Space Station. Gateway will be a platform for conducting scientific research and testing new technologies.
Most importantly, Gateway will be a waystation: a meet-up point for Orion spacecraft coming and going from Earth, and a service station and dock for lunar landing vehicles.
When Artemis III and its crew of four arrive in lunar orbit, Lunar Gateway will already be waiting for them, along with the landing vehicle that will carry two of the crew to the surface. The landing crew will spend almost seven days on the moon, more than twice the stay of Apollo 17, the longest Apollo visit. The other two astronauts will remain in orbit on the Gateway and the docked Orion spacecraft.
Advance surveys by a robotic rover, VIPER, and an orbital CubeSat will help choose Artemis III’s landing site by finding and sampling deposits of water ice.
When the astronauts arrive at the south pole, they will find a lunar rover vehicle waiting for them, similar to the electric, golf-cart-like vehicles used by later Apollo missions. The rover will be able to take astronauts on excursions of up to nine miles from the landing site.
During their weeklong stay near the moon’s south pole, the astronauts will run scientific experiments and collect samples, including water ice. Of particular interest to explore are permanently shadowed polar craters and valleys where water ice is protected from the sun’s direct rays.
Building Capacity For Longer Stays
Missions to follow the 2024 landing will feature ever longer visits to the Gateway and the moon’s surface.
An “Artemis Base Camp” will be established at a yet-to-be-chosen site; one candidate is Shackleton Crater. Conceived as a home base for expeditions into the surrounding terrain, Base Camp will feature a “Lunar Foundation Surface Habitat” of semi-permanent human dwellings — or “cabins” — and materials, supplies, and other equipment to maintain the base and service outbound explorations across the moon's surface.
Lunar Terrain Vehicles, like the one Artemis III will use, will extend the astronauts’ reach traveling the landscape. The vehicles will also be operated remotely from Base Camp or even Lunar Gateway orbiting above, turning them into robotic exploration rovers and payload transportation vehicles.
Base Camp may eventually service a Habitable Mobility Platform: a large, pressurized rover that can support a crew of four for up to 45 days, carrying them on long expeditions of discovery. Think of the rover from the film, “The Martian.”
This may all sound very far off or fictional, but actually, this future is almost here.
Practice For a Much Farther Journey?
The immediate goals of the Artemis program are to investigate the moon and assess its resources for supporting long-term, sustained human habitation. But NASA has grander plans: use the Gateway and lander vehicle systems to practice for a human voyage to Mars.
The idea is to send astronauts on multi-month stays to the Gateway to simulate the voyages to and from Mars, with a long stay on the lunar surface as a dress rehearsal for an actual landing on the Red Planet. Such a demonstration using real spacecraft, a real timeline, and a real away-from-Earth practice venue will show us how the actual voyage to and landing on Mars can play out.
Though we already know how to send spacecraft to Mars, how long it takes to get there, and how to land on its surface, our lunar proving ground can offer us practical experience for what Mars-bound astronauts will have to endure, and what skills and tools they will need to take them there and home again — maybe as soon as the early 2030s.
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