50 years ago, humankind took its first steps on the moon, and the world celebrated. However, 47 years ago, the last human walked on the moon, and we have not been back since. Until now.
The new programme that will take humans back to the moon is called Artemis, who in Greek mythology was the twin of Apollo the sun god. She was the moon goddess, and was closely linked with womanhood, having chosen to remain chaste and unmarried all her life, and being a midwife, helping all women in childbirth. So she’s an appropriate namesake for the missions which will send the first woman to the moon; I would argue a more appropriate name than Apollo was for the initial missions, famous though he is.
The Apollo spaceflight missions were ground-breaking, building up from unmanned flights, to manned flights in orbit around the moon to the first man walking on the moon. The missions from Apollo 12 onwards, though, were meant for research and learning about the moon itself. Apollo 12 and 14 succeeded in precision landings on the moon and started the exploration of the moon proper. Apollo 15, 16 and 17 were more thorough explorations of the moon both on the surface and from orbit, with a trained geologist aboard the 17 lunar module to use expert knowledge in situ.
It’s amazing that all of this was achieved using only the technology that was available at the time – we have more computing power in a mobile phone than the Apollo 11 computer (a million times more memory and 7 million times more storage). But nowadays, we have all of that modern tech at our disposal to get back to the moon. Easy peasy, right?
The Artemis missions (spearheaded by NASA but including collaboration from the European Space Agency, ESA; the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA; the Canadian Space Agency, CSA; and the Australian Space Agency, ASA; as well as private commercial spaceflight companies) are planned for the next few years, with Artemis 1, 2 and 3 planned to happen by 2024, each getting us closer to actually landing on the moon in the 21st century. But, not only are NASA planning on landing on the moon once more, they plan to stay there! The Artemis missions come with the expectation that humans will ‘establish a sustained [and hopefully sustainable] presence’ on the moon by 2028.
The latest technology will be used to get us further than we’ve ever been before, because not only are the Artemis missions planned to go to the moon, but by 2030, NASA hopes to be ready to go to Mars!
There is a lot to be done before we are ready to go to a whole new planet, though. We have to start from the ground up (literally), building and upgrading launch pads and assembly areas to allow both NASA and other, private companies to build and launch the vehicles required to take us into space.
Space Launch System
The old Saturn V that was used to launch the Apollo missions is now very old fashioned. Instead, a whole new deep space system is being built to allow us to leave Earth. It will be the most powerful rocket in the world, and, obviously, is named the Space Launch System, or SLS. It is taller than the Empire State Building, but slightly shorter than the Saturn V – there’s even more power crammed into that space though! 15% more thrust will be generated at lift-off than the Saturn V, and the SLS will be capable of taking more cargo to the moon (26 tons) than the space shuttle was capable of taking to low-earth orbit (22 tons). And it will even ‘evolve’ over time, according to NASA, and be capable of taking more than 45 metric tons into deep space in the future. Which is great, especially since the SLS weighs a whopping 2500 tons on its own (a lot of that is shed in take-off, though).
Orion is the capsule that will hold the astronauts on each Artemis mission. It is a small conical ship which will house up to four astronauts and support them through deep space. There’s more to this travelling through space thing than just making sure the astronauts have air; unmanned test will trial radiation blockers and the capsule will have to be able to support life if there is an emergency far from Earth. It will also have to withstand the heat and velocity of re-entry into the atmosphere.
The first launch using the SLS is planned for 2021 and designated Artemis I, where the SLS and the Orion will be used together for the first time. It will be an unmanned flight, carrying the Artemis 1 mission equipment (including Orion) as well as a number of satellites (CubeSats for ten missions as part of the CubeSat Launch Initiative) and one lander, designed to study various aspects of the moon. Some of the missions that are planned to travel with Artemis I are built to test nanotechnology in space, launch vehicle operations, what happens to DNA in space and new propulsion systems using water. The flight will aim for orbit around the moon.
Artemis 2 is planned for late in 2022, and will be the first crewed Artemis mission, with up to four astronauts aboard. It will aim for a flyby of the moon and return to Earth, in a similar path to the Apollo 13 mission. It differs from Apollo 8, which went into orbit around the moon, completing a number of complete orbits before returning to Earth. Artemis 2 will fly around the moon only once.
2024 will see the third Artemis mission, and the first time in nearly 50 years that humans will walk on the moon. This mission is planned to have a crew of 4, 2 of whom will travel aboard the Human Landing System (HLS) lunar lander to the surface of the moon. They will stay on the lunar surface for 6.5 days, completing various investigations to allow us to learn more about the moon. There will be equipment already placed on the moon for their use, such as a lunar rover.
The Gateway will put everything we’ve learnt (from Apollo, the shuttle missions, and the ISS) about living in space, and yet more, to the test. It will be a small space station with living quarters and labs as well as docking ports to allow spacecraft to join it, in permanent orbit around the moon. While there won’t be astronauts there all year round like on the ISS, some people will visit this station about once per year, to allow greater access to the lunar surface for both humans and …get this… robots! It’ll be a bit cosier than the ISS as well – the ISS is about the size of a six bedroom house, while the Gateway will be a one-bedroom flat. Astronauts will still be there for up to three months at a time, and can land on the moon more easily with the Gateway as their home base. The Astronauts there can even practice for mars trips, as the Gateway will be the base for visiting the red planet too.
The Gateway will be built in a number of rocket launches (five or six, in comparison to the 34 launches that it took to build the ISS) aiming for completion in 2026, some parts being launched on private rockets, but most using the SLS and Orion. In the next decade, NASA hope to improve and expand the gateway with the help of international partners, allowing other countries to make use of the revolutionary lunar outpost.
And not only will the Gateway allow lots of new science in orbit around and on the surface of the moon, it can even be moved to explore different orbits and positions around the moon. The hope is that the Gateway can be used to perform new scientific endeavours, such as looking at the universe from outside the Earth’s atmosphere, as well as looking back at Earth and at the Sun, on top of learning what it is like to live for long periods outside the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field. In fact, in the last two weeks, NASA have chosen the first two scientific experiments to fly on board the space station, one to monitor space weather (solar winds and particles) and another to look at the sun and monitor how the gateway is exposed to its radiation. However, these are just the first of many experiments that will take place in the future using the Gateway as a base of operations, and, of course, the big goal is reaching a sustained presence on the moon’s surface, and eventually, Mars!
The first Gateway components are due to lift off in 2022, and will be tested once it reaches lunar orbit to ensure that it is ready for the next two segments, which will be sent up on a crewed (Artemis) mission and will add the habitation module, allowing Astronauts to reside there. Each subsequent section will be sent up, each on a crewed mission, until the Gateway is complete!
One part of the Artemis missions that is still up in the air (although thankfully not literally) is the Lunar lander. This part of the missions will include collaboration from various companies, in fact, NASA have put out calls for design proposals for the lunar lander after releasing two drafts of the design themselves. This level of collaboration is very exciting, allowing innovative new designs to come forward from private companies, and crucially, streamlining the process to allow NASA’s proposed timeline to work. NASA are choosing two companies to create their landers; the first will be used for landing the next people on the moon in 2024, and the second after that in 2025.
The plan is slightly different than that used in the Apollo missions, because this time, the Gateway will be in play. This means that the lunar landers will travel to the moon separately from the astronauts. The two crafts (Orion and HLS) will meet at the Gateway and proceed to the moon’s surface. However, NASA have said that if anyone has any better ideas, to let them know! The company ‘remains open to alternative, innovative approaches’.
A new century means new fashions, but Artemis’ spacesuits will be about a lot more than just looks (although they will be a little bit about that)! The safety of the astronauts will be the number one priority, of course, but the design will be sleeker and more considerate of the Astronauts’ need for mobility (insert gif of Harrison Schmidt falling over on the moon). They also come with a fancy new name: the xEMU, or Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (that’s a mouthful). Now knowing more than we ever have about the moon’s surface and the conditions there, there have been a few upgrades to the Apollo suits, such as a dust inhalation filter, some extra redundancies in life support (technology takes up so much less space nowadays!) to allow longer and safer spacewalks, and better communication systems. They will still have to wear a nappy though.
So, all in all, there’s a lot to be done before we can get to the moon once more. NASA have set out an ambitious timescale for reaching Earth’s satellite in the 21st century, and will only accomplish it with a lot of help. The Artemis missions are over all a global collaboration between many different space agencies and companies to send the human race further and for longer than it’s ever been before. The Artemis missions aren’t just short or even medium term; and while Mars is definitely one of the goals of the programme, Artemis I, II and III are simply the beginning of a long new future of travel to the moon. Plans for a lunar surface outpost are in the works (although information is scarce), and NASA has unveiled plans for yearly trips to the moon following Artemis III’s success.
And, on January 10th of this year, the Astronaut group the class that will be on these missions (nicknamed the turtles) graduated, including 12 American astronauts, and two CSA astronauts. They have a wide range of specialities, from biology, geology and medicine (and one combustion scientist – how do I sign up for that?) to naval and armed forces officers. And, they were all born in the seventies and eighties. That means exactly what you think it means – it’s not too late for you to become an astronaut heading for Mars, no matter what your specialty!