Science

Why NASA Wants to Go Back to the Moon

These include the development of the Gateway robotics and habitat modules for crews, as well as a lunar rover, all of which could be precursors for future technologies on Mars. Next-generation spacesuits, to be developed by Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace, will include improved life support and communication systems and would allow for extra mobility.

Assuming the early Artemis missions are successful, on subsequent voyages more components will be dispatched to the moon station, and astronauts will be deployed for extended jaunts on the lunar soil, possibly for weeks at a time. “As we’re doing these missions, they’re getting more and more complex. And so the infrastructure to support them gets more and more complex,” Koerner says.

Although no passengers will travel on Artemis 1, the capsule will carry along three mannequins. The male one, dubbed Commander Moonikin Campos thanks to a public naming contest, has been used for Orion vibration tests. He will fly alongside two female mannequin torsos, made from materials that mimic the bones, soft tissues, and organs of an adult woman. All of them will be equipped with sensors for detecting space radiation, because prolonged exposure can harm astronauts’ health. (The European Space Agency, which is collaborating with NASA on the flight, is sending along a Shaun the Sheep doll.) 

The mission will also deploy 10 shoebox-sized spacecraft called CubeSats, some of which will map the moon’s surface and study its pockets of ice, while others will test a space radiation shield or proceed to more distant spots, like a near-Earth asteroid.

The Artemis project will also serve as a test bed for technologies developed through public-private partnerships. NASA has already worked with Terran Orbital and Rocket Lab to launch a small spacecraft known as Capstone, which is currently scouting the future orbit of the Lunar Gateway. Maxar Technologies of Westminster, Colorado, will provide Gateway’s power and propulsion, while Northrop Grumman ​​of Dulles, Virginia, is working on the HALO module, a small area where the first Gateway astronauts will live and conduct research. SpaceX will launch both of those on a Falcon Heavy rocket in late 2024.

Grand programs also create opportunities for global diplomacy and relationships among space agencies. NASA is working with many international partners on Artemis, with the European Space Agency providing Orion’s service module on Artemis 1 and collaborating on Gateway’s I-HAB. Japan’s space agency is developing a cargo supply spacecraft for Gateway and is looking into the concept of a pressurized moon rover, inside which astronauts would be able to take off their bulky spacesuits. Canada’s space agency is designing a robotic arm for the station. A total of 21 countries have also signed on to the Artemis Accords, the US government’s attempt to establish best practices for future international exploration of the moon.

Yet a project as ambitious as returning to the moon is not always a political winner. It’s expensive, for one thing. Some critics, like former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, have called out the ballooning cost of the agency’s building its own Space Launch System—at a time when SpaceX is developing the less expensive Super Heavy rocket, along with the reusable Starship spacecraft.

And programs that extend through many presidential administrations with different space priorities can be vulnerable to shifting political winds. Sometimes a program won’t survive a transition in power at the White House. Former US presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump—who initiated the Artemis program—favored lunar missions, while former president Barack Obama focused on launching humans to Mars. “Artemis has spanned multiple presidential administrations, so that bodes well. But there are still a lot of unknowns, and it’s a large investment,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, a space historian and curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

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