NASA Continues Slow And Steady Pace Towards the Moon

artemis feat

It is often said that the wheels of government turn slowly, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than at NASA. While it may seem like we hear about a new commercial space launch or venture every week, projects supported by the national space agency are often mired in budget cuts and indecision from above. It takes a lot of political will to allocate tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars for a project that could take decades to complete, and not every White House resident is willing to risk their reputation for such daring ambitions.

In 2019, when Vice President Mike Pence told a cheering crowd at the US Space & Rocket Center that the White House was officially ordering NASA to return US astronauts to the moon’s surface by 2024, everyone knew this was a ambitious timeline. But not one without precedent. The speech was a not-so-subtle allusion to President Kennedy’s famous 1962 statement at Rice University that America would safely land a man on the moon before the end of the decade, a challenge NASA could tackle in less than six months. about .

Unfortunately, a rousing speech only gets you so far. Without a significant increase in the agency’s budget, progress on the new Artemis lunar program was limited. To complicate matters, less than a year after Pence took the podium in Huntsville, there was a new president in the White House. While there were initial concerns that the Biden administration would abolish the Artemis program as part of a general “house cleanup,” it was allowed to continue under newly installed NASA administrator Bill Nelson. The original 2024 deadline, currently virtually unattainable due to delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has been quietly abandoned.

So where are we now? Is NASA closer to returning humanity to the moon in 2022 than it is in 2020 or even 2010? While it may not seem like it from an outsider’s perspective, a closer look at some of the recent milestones and developments of the Artemis program shows that the agency is at least moving in the right direction.

The Shakedown Cruise

A key component of the Artemis program is the Space Launch System (SLS), a giant rocket derived from Space Shuttle hardware. But unlike the reusable Shuttle, no attempt will be made to restore the hardware between flights. Each SLS will only fly on one mission, at the end of which it will crash into the ocean, like the Saturn V that took Apollo to the moon.

After years of delays, the first operational SLS was recently rolled out to Kennedy Space Center’s launch complex 39B for final checks before embarking on its debut mission: Artemis I. When launched this summer, the mega-rocket will launch an unmanned Orion pod. speed up the moon, where it will orbit for six days to check the vehicle’s systems, conduct various experiments that will support subsequent manned missions aboard the Orion, and deploy a series of small CubeSats.

In total, the mission will last just over 25 days, which will give the engineers time to collect data about the radiation environment inside the Orion capsule during deep space flights. In-cab dosimeters will record how much radiation a human crew would have been exposed to in a standard “shirt-sleeve” environment, while a second set will quantify the effectiveness of a wearable radiation shielding vest currently under development by Lockheed Martin and StemRad.

If all goes according to plan, Artemis I will be followed by the Artemis II mission no earlier than 2024. On this 10-day mission, four astronauts will fly past the moon, much like the Apollo 8 “dry run” in 1968. No landing will be attempted, but it will be the first time humans have been out of low orbit since Apollo 17 in 1972. traveled around the earth.

Prepare for Touchdown

Under the current plan, humans will not set foot on the moon until Artemis III, which is not planned until 2025. Astronauts will launch on the SLS and take the Orion to lunar orbit, where a modified SpaceX starship will already appear. be there waiting for them. Two crew members will transfer to the Starship, which will land on the surface and serve as a base of operations for about a week. After surface operations are completed, the Starship will lift off from the moon, encounter the Orion capsule in orbit, and the reunited crew will return to Earth.

At 50 meters (164 feet) high, Starship is a very different vehicle than the arachnid Apollo Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). It will quite literally be like landing the Statue of Liberty on the surface of the moon and then launching it back into space in one piece. The sheer scale of Starship offers exciting opportunities, but also comes with major challenges. For example, how exactly are astronauts supposed to take “one small step” when the hatch is 12 stories up?

NASA recently released a paper discussing some of the logistical challenges of the Human Landing System (HLS) and how they worked with SpaceX’s teams to convert Starship into a multi-purpose lunar exploration vehicle. That includes a large open elevator that can safely lower astronauts and equipment from the nose of Starship to the lunar surface. The crew will also need a large airlock so they can enter and exit Starship without decompressing the entire vehicle, as was done on the relatively small LEM.

None of these features were secret or unexpected. Even the earliest views of the lunar starship showed it would have some sort of elevator to descend the side of the hull. But these photos of actual prototype hardware under test show that we’re not just talking about a concept anymore — the next vehicle to take humans to the moon is actively under construction.

The more the merrier

Initially, SpaceX was the only company to get a contract from NASA to build an Artemis lunar lander. But some, including Congress, were unhappy that America was pinning its triumphant return to the moon on just one company. Of course, it’s too late to have them ready for take-off by 2025, but since Artemis should pave the way for long-term exploration and habitation of our closest celestial neighbor, there’s plenty of room for other companies to develop additional landing capacity.

Lunar Gateway Station

That’s why NASA announced earlier this month that they are looking for commercial partners to develop vehicles for surface operations after Artemis III. The plan is to have the Lunar Gateway station up and running by then, so the contract is specifically looking for vehicles that can carry astronauts and cargo between the surface and space. In this setup, as with the Starship, the SLS and Orion would still be needed to get crews to and from the moon.

There has been much debate about the need for the expensive booster, now estimated to cost taxpayers $4 billion per mission, in the face of increasingly capable commercial launch providers. But it seems clear that NASA, or at least those in charge from above, want to make sure there’s a niche for it outside of the currently planned Artemis missions.

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