Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which took place on July 20, 1969. In many ways, it’s surprising that no one has been to the moon since but NASA is now hopeful that another one of its astronauts will set foot on the lunar South Pole by the end of 2024. Jenny Southan reports
President Trump may not be popular but he has ordered NASA to fast-track its plans to return astronauts to the moon, bringing forward a proposed landing in 2024 instead of 2028. The mission will be known as Artemis.
To help with development of the new Space Launch System (SLS) booster, as well as other hardware, an additional US$1.6 billion has been requested for NASA’s fiscal 2020 budget, although whether it gets this funding remains to be seen. Overall, NASA says it would probably need another US$20 billion over five years to meet the new deadline.
Artemis has a specific timeline. In 2021, NASA needs to launch an SLS rocket and uncrewed Orion capsule on a trip around the moon in a mission dubbed Artemis 1.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “When we go around the moon uncrewed, we will be able to navigate around the moon, to be able to change orbits, to test all of the systems we need to test with the Orion crew capsule and the European service module.”
Between 2022 and 2023, the space agency then needs to launch Artemis 2, a crewed SLS and Orion flight to test Orion’s systems in Earth orbit, before carrying out a “free return” loop around the moon and back to Earth for an ocean splashdown. The new Orion capsule will be 50 per cent bigger than Apollo 11’s and will accommodate four crew.
To make space travel of this kind more sustainable, NASA is endeavouring to build a small space station called Gateway, remotely, in orbit around the moon, as well as a new landing craft.
The plan is for take-off in 2024. Astronauts would first dock at the Gateway station, then board the lander to descend to the surface of the moon. Ideally, there would then be one crewed flight to the moon a year, with astronauts spending a week exploring its alien landscape.
Bridenstine said: “Expanded Gateway and surface capabilities later in the decade could support surface exploration that lasts for weeks or months and test the technologies and systems needed for missions farther into the solar system, including Mars. This will be critical to supporting the agency’s plans for sustainable lunar exploration.”
NASA isn’t the only organisation vying to put humans on the moon. This month, Space X CEO Elon Musk said his company could take humans to the moon by 2021 using its Starship space craft – three years ahead of NASA’s Artemis.
He told Time: “This is gonna sound pretty crazy, but I think we could land on the moon in less than two years. Certainly with an uncrewed vehicle I believe we could land on the moon in two years,” he told Time.
He also spoke about how important the sustainbility will be in space exploration: “In order for us to be a multi-planet species we must solve full reusability of rockets. In the absence of that… It would as though if in the old days if ships were not reusable. The cost of an ocean voyage would be tremendous. And you’d need to have a second ship towed behind you for the return journey. Or you can imagine if airplanes were not reusable, nobody would fly, you know, because airliner costs a couple hundred million dollars.
“So this is why full and rapid reusability is the holy grail of access to space and is a fundamental step towards it – without which we cannot become a multi planet species. We cannot have a base on the moon or a city on Mars without full and rapid reusability. This is why we’ve been working so hard towards reusability at SpaceX.”
Last autumn, billionaire Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa put down a sizeable deposit for trip around the moon with Space X, although there have been reports he has been selling off his assets because he is broke. So whether or not he becomes one of the world’s first space tourists still hangs in the balance.