Fifty years ago, NASA’s Apollo 11 crossed a vast chasm of empty space en route to the moon, and on July 20, 1969, at exactly 8:56 p.m. Central Time, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the lunar surface. The last time humans visited the moon was in 1972 during the last mission of NASA’s Apollo program.
Now, with new directives from President Donald Trump, NASA is in the middle of a new space race, this time to establish a sustained human presence on and around the moon within the next decade.
But most of the equipment that will get us there hasn’t yet been made or even completely designed yet, and NASA has already met with significant delays, not to mention the massive amount of funding required for the endeavor that’s yet to materialize. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of our maiden voyage to the moon, let’s look ahead to what the future may hold in store for our imminent return.
What are we naming this endeavor?
NASA has aptly named its new mission program Artemis, the goddess of the moon and twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology. And just like the Apollo missions, there will be several important steps and milestones on our return journey to the moon.
NASA is currently coordinating the construction of a space station that will orbit the moon, called Gateway. Astronauts will be able to live aboard the small station for up to three months at a time and use its solar-powered ion propulsion system to explore new parts of the moon. The first portion of the station is set to be launched into lunar orbit by a private company in 2022.
How will we get there?
Before humans set out on their return mission, we’ll need a rocket powerful enough to get us there. Several independent companies are building the various pieces of the Space Launch System, or SLS. That rocket will launch astronauts into space and propel them toward the moon at a dizzying 24,500 miles per hour. When finished, it will be the most powerful rocket in the world, producing over 8 million pounds of thrust. Work on the rocket has almost completed, and it’s set to carry its first payload into space in late 2021.
Perched atop the SLS, which is taller than the Statue of Liberty, the Orion spacecraft will be the control center and living quarters for the astronauts during their voyage. NASA performed a test of Orion’s safety abort system earlier this month. The abort system propels the capsule away from the main rocket should an emergency occur, transporting the astronauts inside to safety.
When the SLS launches in 2021, it will carry an unmanned Orion spacecraft for a test flight around the moon in a collective mission called Artemis 1. If that mission is successful, Artemis 2 will commence in 2022. This time, astronauts will be onboard, and they’ll be taking additional portions of the Gateway space station with them to be assembled in lunar orbit. Finally, in 2024, astronauts will again set foot on the moon during the Artemis 3 mission.
Once we’re over the moon, then what?
NASA currently plans seven Artemis missions. With the lunar space station close by, astronauts will be able to stay on and near the moon much longer than we’ve ever been able to before. They’ll be able to refuel shuttles and store larger amounts of food and oxygen than would otherwise have been possible in previous missions. And if all goes well on the moon, Gateway will live up to its name by being the way station from which astronauts will depart for their long journey to Mars sometime in the next few decades.
How likely is NASA to hit those deadlines?
So far, Congress has yet to approve the $1.6 billion dollar funding request for the Artemis program, and portions of the project has already fallen behind schedule. But development is going ahead as planned despite the uncertainty. NASA is also coordinating with private companies to build key components, which gives them the much needed extra manpower to make the program successful.
And if history is any indication, hard deadlines, similar to those in the 1960’s space race, may help provide the impetus and public interest and support needed to get us to the moon and beyond.