Humans have not stepped on the moon in 47 years, and NASA is determined to go back by 2024 with the new Artemis program. The Artemis program is multi-faceted as it will include rockets, a space station, and of course manned landings on the moon. This is a very ambitious project in such a short timescale, but NASA aims to get help from private space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin.
The first component that needs to be built is the Space Launch System (SLS), which is a heavy-lift rocket that would be capable of launching heavy payloads like space station parts and landers. The SLS project has been in development for over 8 years now with no signs of being finished anytime soon. NASA’s timescale shows that the SLS needs to be ready for an uncrewed launch by the end of 2020. The main problem with the development of the SLS is the core stage, which Boeing has been building in those 8 years. (1)
The second component is the Gateway space station, which I covered in a previous article. The Gateway space station will periodically switch orbits between the moon or the Earth depending on when moon landings happen. Ideally, the station becomes a hub where landers attach to and then are transported to moon orbit for deployment. (2) Private space companies have been contracted to develop prototypes for the habitation modules for the Gateway space station. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are looking to use existing platforms to develop the space station. Lockheed’s prototype uses a previous design for a logistics module designed for the International Space Station, which will work with the Orion capsule developed by NASA. On the other hand, Northrop Grumman designed the habitation modules by using their Cygnus cargo spacecraft as a base. (3)
The final components of the Artemis program are the landers and science experiments. Once again NASA tasked private space companies to develop prototypes for landers. SpaceX and Blue Origin are currently working on concepts for the lander. The end goal for the Artemis program is to have a starting point for a moon base by 2028, but this will require 37 launches of cargo, space station modules, science experiments, and five human lunar landings. (1) Regarding experiments NASA has no clear plans yet and is currently discussing ideas. Several NASA scientists recently did an AMA on Reddit and Dr. Daniel Moriarty III shared some initial ideas for experiments. According to him, collecting samples will be beneficial as Artemis will focus on the south pole, a fairly unexplored area of the moon. Additionally, a seismometer would be a good experiment to detect “moonquakes” and gather information about the interior of the moon. (4)
Overall, the Artemis project is very complex and will require collaboration of many different companies. However, funding remains as a major obstacle as with every space mission. NASA’s current administrator, Jim Bridenstine asked Congress for an extra $1.6 billion this year to start development of the landers. Normally, NASA gets about $20 billion a year, but the Artemis program might cost an extra $6-8 billion. (1) In my opinion, I think it is important to get the public excited for the return to the moon, so that the government can see the interest in going back. If the Artemis program succeeds it will be the starting point for future human exploration of our solar system, including Mars and beyond.
For general program overview, visit the NASA website.