The year 2022 should mark an important step back to the Moon. In fact, within a few months the first mission of the new American lunar program, Artemis, must be stopped. What will be the process and what will be the technical and economic challenges of this major space project that will span the decade?
Announced in late August, the Artemis I mission will carry NASA’s new giant launch vehicle, the SLS (Space Launch System) originally scheduled for late 2016, the program is facing significant delays. The last major test before launching again last April, the Wet dress rehearsal, revealed a number of technical problems, particularly related to filling the tanks with liquid oxygen and hydrogen. So NASA had to send the launcher back to its assembly building for repairs. A new test is scheduled for June 20, 2022 at Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
This test was the only time the Artemis I mission could be verified. It must be said that SLS is a particularly complex technical object. With its 70 tons and nearly 100 meters height, it will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever built, surpassing the iconic Saturn V that carried 24 American astronauts to the moon between 1968 and 1972.
Three steps to return to the moon
On top of the SLS is the Orion spacecraft, where the astronauts will travel. Orion uses the architecture of its older brother, the Apollo module, but with larger dimensions. Thus, four astronauts would be able to travel to the Moon during each mission, compared to three during Apollo.
But initially, an empty Orion spacecraft will be launched by SLS to test all phases of the mission. It will remain in orbit around the moon for several days so that NASA engineers can verify its performance. Thanks to the engines of its service module built by the European Space Agency, it will return to Earth to test the critical stages of re-entry and landing in the atmosphere.
If this dress rehearsal is successful, a first crewed flight will follow during the Artemis II mission, currently scheduled for mid-2024. Like their Apollo 8 predecessors, the mission’s four astronauts would fly over the moon but not land on it. So we will have to wait for Artemis III to see the actual return of the crew to the surface of our satellite. After leaving Orion and landing at HLS (Human Landing System), the two astronauts, including the first woman to walk on the moon, will spend about a week on the surface, more than double the record set during the Apollo missions. Scheduled for 2025, the mission could experience delays of several years, according to the latest report by NASA’s inspector general.
In parallel, a space station, Gateway, will be integrated into orbit around the Moon from late 2024. Much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), it will be based on a similar partnership between American, European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies, but this time without Russia. Eventually, at least three European astronauts should be stationed in lunar orbit this way, with a module already under construction in France.
Stay long term
Gateway is a major difference between the Artemis and Apollo programs. Providing a transit point between Earth and the Moon and a space for experiments, it is presented as a component for sustaining a return to the Moon. Because NASA realized that there was a strong stake in going beyond a symbolic and timed return to the Moon, the competition was already won more than fifty years ago. As American astrophysicist John Horak pointed out in 2019, the motivations for returning to the Moon today are less geopolitical than economic. The Artemis Treaty, which France has just joined, for example, clearly provides for the possibility of extracting resources from the Moon, although the viability of the associated economic models is still far from demonstrated.
The American space agency encourages the creation of a commercial ecosystem around the moon. In the program Commercial Lunar Payload Service (CLPS), private actors are funded to build spacecraft capable of landing on the moon and deposit instruments or robots there, which private companies can also develop. Lunar landers with intuitive machines and astrobotic technology will attempt the maneuver in principle by the end of 2022.
By the same token, the HLS that will deposit astronauts on the Moon is also subcontracted to a private partner, SpaceX. Elon Musk’s company is not content to be just a service provider and is developing its own projects in parallel. For example, he announced that he had sold Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa a ticket for a tourist flight in orbit around the moon, which was easier and cheaper than landing on the moon. Originally announced for next year, the deadline is unlikely to be met due to recent setbacks SpaceX has faced in developing its new Starship Launcher.
A new international impetus
Long-term sustainability is also a challenge for the two other space powers that have successfully landed on the moon: Russia and China. If Russia is a historic player in the race to the moon like the United States, China made a remarkable catch-up by landing a lander on the far side of the moon for the first time in 2019, and successfully launched an expedition. Return of Moon Rocks to Earth in 2020
China and Russia announced in 2021 that they wanted to join forces to build an orbital stationInternational Lunar Research Centre (ILRS), scheduled for the early 2030s. Until then, several robotic missions are planned, including Chang’e 6 to China and Luna 25 to Russia. The last mission scheduled for this fall is a continuation of the Soviet Luna program, of which Luna 24 was the last representative since 1976. Other countries, India, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Japan are also planning missions to the moon next month.
In the long term, the idea behind the Artemis program is to reuse developments made for the first trip to Mars by the 2040s. But it should be noted that the challenges posed by a human journey to Mars are beyond measure. Those of the Artemis program, despite costing NASA close to $100 billion, are still far from allowing permanent installations on the Moon. Making our satellite a destination is a challenge that space players must take on long before they hope to reach the Red Planet.
by Dmitri Chuard, astrophysicist, is in charge of potential research, Minus Paris
The original version of this article was published in The Conversation.