Fifty years after the last humans walked on the moon, humankind has started to go back to Earth’s nearest neighbor. After all the false starts, the political wrangling, the technological difficulties and the bureaucratic ineptitude that has accompanied the effort, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission will launch as soon as Monday, Aug. 29.
The Artemis program has taken the efforts of many engineers, managers and politicians over the past several years to make the dream a reality. The latest return to the moon effort has been as much a product of backroom dealing and political compromise as it has been engineers refining designs and managers trying to control costs.
The NASA Space Launch System, which will hurtle the uncrewed Orion capsule on a multiweek mission around the moon, resulted from a “Faustian bargain,” as former Deputy NASA Administrator Lori Garver put it. The deal took place in the wake of President Barack Obama’s cancelation of the previous return to the moon, Project Constellation. In return for Congress swallowing that cancelation and the start of the Commercial Crew effort, NASA agreed to build the giant, Space Launch System using engines and other parts left over from the space shuttle.
Theoretically, using proven hardware would keep costs low. The reality turned out to be different. The Space Launch System is years behind schedule and billions over budget. One launch will cost an eyepopping $4.1 billion, although NASA hopes to reduce that amount to some extent. Ironically, one of the senators involved in the deal, Bill Nelson, is now NASA administrator and thus has the task of making the heavy-lift rocket work.
Leaving aside that we are going back to the moon in the most expensive, hardest way possible – we are, in fact, returning to the moon, an event that will affect the course of history in ways that are beyond evaluation. Artemis will recapture the lost promise of Apollo. The program will help to make humanity a multi-planet species, with all that implies to the acquisition of knowledge, wealth and soft political power.
Artemis 1 will not carry astronauts to the moon, but the mission will test technologies that will be important for future crewed missions. One such technology is a version of Amazon Alexa, a virtual assistant technology, that will report on the status of the Orion spacecraft’s systems and allow astronauts to control the spacecraft with voice commands.
The mission will also test an anti-radiation vest designed by Israeli and German engineers. A mannikin designed to simulate the female body called Zohar will wear the vest along with radiation sensors to test how the device shields against space radiation. Another mannikin, dubbed Helga, will not be equipped with the vest and will serve as a control.
A third mannikin, dubbed “Commander Moonikin Campos,” will wear an orange Orion spacesuit. Campos will come equipped with a number of sensors designed to measure things like radiation and vibration that will be experienced by future astronauts.
Artemis 1 is also carrying 10 CubeSats as secondary payloads. Among the more interesting ones are:
- Lunar IceCube, designed to study water distribution and interaction on the moon.
- NEA Scout, which will use a solar sail to perform a flyby of a small, Earth-approaching asteroid.
- OMOTENASHI, which will attempt a semi-hard landing on the lunar surface to test the technology for cheap, small landers.
The CubeSats will be released shortly after the Orion performs a translunar injection maneuver.
The future of humanity’s return to the moon depends on the success or failure of the Artemis 1 mission. If Artemis 1 launches, completes its mission and then splashes down off the coast of California, much criticism of the expense and complexity of the Space Launch System will likely fade away.
However, if the mission ends in failure, and uncounted ways exist for it to fail, critics will raise questions. The date of the first footprints on the moon will be pushed back while engineers search for what went wrong and how to correct it. People who are opposed to going back to the moon at all will be emboldened.
Currently, NASA has scheduled Artemis 2, which will take four astronauts around the moon, for 2024. If Artemis 2 succeeds, one to two years after, human beings will walk on the moon. The event will be fraught with beauty and glory, two things this world needs more of.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.
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This story was originally published August 28, 2022 10:00 AM.