An illustration of NASA's proposed Lunar Gateway and Orion spacecraft.

An illustration of NASA's proposed Lunar Gateway and Orion spacecraft.

Image credit: NASA

NASA's plan to return to the Moon with Project Artemis

There are a lot of questions about whether it can actually happen.

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    On July 21, 1969, the first humans set foot on the Moon. With Neil Armstrong's simple words, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," the world changed irrevocably. For a few hours, we existed on multiple worlds. That was fifty years ago.

    Now, in the shadow of Apollo, we are once again looking to venture back out into the stars, past the low Earth orbit where we've been learning about space over the past few decades. We know better how to live and work in orbit thanks to the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. Now NASA says it's time to return to the lunar surface. But this time, it wants to stay there.

    NASA's Project Artemis (aptly named as the goddess of hunting is Apollo's twin sister) aims to take humans back to the Moon by 2024. But there are many lingering questions about the destination, the goals, the motivations, the project itself, NASA's current readiness level and whether it has the support in Congress to move forward.

    Artemis has a deceptively simple goal at first glance: to land humans -- "the first woman and the next man," in NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine's words -- on the lunar surface. It should be easy, right? After all, we've been there before. All we need to do is build the spacecraft and land on the Moon.

    It turns out, though, it isn't quite that simple, for multiple reasons. For Apollo, the goal was to set foot on the Moon. That was it. "Once we beat [the Soviet Union] to the oon, in effect the program was over," Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and CEO of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, explained. That's why we left in the 1970s and haven't returned since. "When I hear people say things like, 'Well, we've already done that,' -- yeah, we already did that. You're right. We absolutely did," said Dittmar. "There's no point in going back to the Moon unless you're going to set up a sustainable presence."

    And that's where the complexity of Artemis lies. While the stated goal might be to land humans on the Moon by 2024, the point of the program is to stay there. "We don't want it to just be flags and footprints and then we leave for another 50 years," said Laura Forczyk, founder of the space consulting firm Astralytica. "We want it to actually be sustainable."

    "Apollo was 'land boots on the Moon,' really anywhere on the Moon, and that's a key difference," explained Nujoud Merancy, the head of NASA's Exploration Mission Planning Office, which oversees the end-to-end mission design of all of NASA's human exploration programs. Because the Apollo missions launched on a single rocket that contained the crew vehicle and the lunar lander, they could only visit a single spot on the Moon for any given mission. They couldn't repeat a landing in the same place. "If you were, say, trying to build a village or a base on the Moon, you want to be able to get back to the same point over and over again," Merancy continued. That's what the design of Artemis will allow, and is one aspect to sustainability.

    "Down the road, NASA wants to get to the point where commercial industry is using the Moon."

    Another is the commercial sector, which is a major way Artemis differs from Apollo. The relationship between NASA and private spaceflight companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin is a partnership rather than the space race it's often characterized as. Where NASA leads, commercial companies and the space industry will follow. It's happening now in low Earth orbit; the idea is to make it happen again on the lunar surface. It's the only way a project like Artemis will eventually become sustainable.

    "Down the road, NASA wants to get to the point where commercial industry is using the Moon," Forczyk said. "Lunar space or lunar surface, to do some kind of activity so that NASA doesn't have to be that anchor tenant anymore. I find that pretty exciting and forward thinking -- where could this lead, in the abstract? How you make it sustainable is to make it profitable and make it scientifically interesting."

    A trial of NASA's Launch Abort System (LAS) with a test version of Orion attached.

    The mission

    While Artemis's 2024 deadline is controversial (more on that later), NASA has long been planning to return to the Moon. There are a few reasons for this: First, there's science and exploration. And second, we need to learn how to operate in space outside of Earth orbit. The Moon provides the perfect opportunity to do just that.

    "The tl;dr is that there is definitely a scientific case for going back to the Moon," explained Emily Lakdawalla, planetary scientist and Senior Editor at The Planetary Society. "We would go to the Moon for the same reasons that we explored in the first place. The Moon was formed out of Earth, it's related to Earth in its origin, and it's experienced everything in space that Earth has, except because it hasn't been geologically active in a long time, it's preserved the evidence for the environment in which the Earth formed in the first place and all of the asteroid impacts and other things that it experienced." We also know more about the Moon than we did fifty years ago, and we can retrieve samples more strategically than we did during the Apollo era.

    But it's more than just that, Lakdawalla explained to Engadget. We now know the Moon holds volatiles, such as water, that are likely concentrated at its poles. These are interesting from a scientific standpoint, but they are also vital for exploration and potential habitation. "One very popular imagination for a way to have a permanent habitation on the Moon is if you set up an outpost on polar crater rim, which experiences sunlight almost all the time, and then you can do your resource extraction activity in a permanently shadowed crater, where there are these light elements -- water and other stuff -- that are in the dark all the time, and that's how it preserves the volatiles. And so that's another place that's interesting both scientifically and for exploration," concluded Lakdawalla.

    To become a multi-planetary species, which is arguably necessary for reasons ranging from climate change to population growth to natural resources, we need to learn to live on other worlds. And that starts with learning to live on the Moon.

    So how do we get there? This is the real issue, and one that NASA has been working on for years.

    There are four pieces of technology that have to come together to make the (second) first Moon landing by 2024. The first is the Orion spacecraft, which will carry the astronauts to and from the Moon. The second is what's called the Lunar Gateway, a small spaceship that Orion will dock with. It will function as a sort of space station in permanent orbit around the Moon. Unlike the ISS, though, it will not be permanently occupied; although, it will have astronaut quarters and serve as a base for lunar exploration. Third, there will be a lander to transport astronauts from the Gateway to the lunar surface and back. And finally, you need the rocket that will take Orion from the Earth's surface to the Gateway, which is NASA's Space Launch System (SLS).

    It's worth noting that none of these pieces are yet operational. NASA is currently contracting out building the lander and the Gateway.

    Orion is progressing steadily; NASA recently conducted a successful abort test of the spacecraft. "The next milestone is Artemis 1, which should be in 2020," explained Nujoud Merancy. "It is also the first launch of the Space Launch System rocket, so that will be the uncrewed test flight of SLS and Orion and all the ground systems and MCC support systems that go with it. That exploration mission, Artemis 1, will be from 26 to 42 days, depending on the time of year."

    This mission will test the integration of SLS, the Orion crew vehicle and service module and the ground systems to support the entire endeavor, which is quite an undertaking. "It's a massive test flight," said Mary Lynne Dittmar. "That's the biggest rocket that's been launched globally since the Saturn V. And to get that and Orion's systems together, integrate them, and do that shakedown cruise, which is really what that is, that needs to happen first because you've got to assure yourselves that the systems will operate." This first uncrewed test flight is currently targeted for late 2020. Given the delays in development for SLS (which have been massive), it's very possible that will slip to early 2021.

    This also assumes that SLS will be the rocket used for the Moon missions. While this is indeed the current plan, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has admitted that, given the cost overruns and schedule, they may look into flying Artemis 1 (originally called EM-1) on a commercial rocket to keep it on schedule.

    After that would come Artemis 2, which would be the first crewed test flight of both SLS and Orion. According to Dittmar, that needs to happen "by 2022 or early 2023" for a 2024 lunar landing mission to be feasible.

    "The timeline is very aggressive. I think it's doable, but it all depends on getting started very quickly."

    But there's more than just Orion and SLS to worry about, Merancy explained. "You need to launch all of the pieces -- Gateway and the landers, those would be on commercial flights," she continued. That's scheduled to begin in 2022 and must be completed and assembled before a lunar landing is feasible. "And then you'd actually have Artemis 3, which would be a lunar landing mission in 2024," Merancy concluded.

    It's a lot of moving parts, and this ambitious schedule assumes that each piece of this goes smoothly, and there are no huge setbacks along the way. Dittmar reminded us that not a single human-rated spacecraft or rocket has ever been delivered less than two years behind schedule. So the question is whether this accelerated timeline is actually doable. "The timeline is very aggressive," Merancy confirmed to Engadget. "I think it's doable, but it all depends on getting started very quickly."

    A liquid oxygen tank, transported as part of the ongoing development of NASA's SLS Rocket.

    The political fight

    Even if everything went smoothly for NASA from here on out (a big assumption when it comes to spaceflight, which is incredibly, massively difficult), there's still a big obstacle: political support. For NASA to accomplish a lunar landing by the 2024 goal, it needs a lot more money than it has now. And that's up to Congress.

    As we've discussed, the point of Artemis is sustainability. So, the question goes, why is there a 2024 deadline? "A lot of people -- especially Democrats -- see [2024] as a political date, which would mark the end of a second Trump administration term if he did get re-elected," said Forczyk. It's partially because of this that Congressional support for Artemis, which this presidential administration has pushed, has been somewhat difficult to muster.

    "It's too early to tell whether or not Artemis has the political support it needs to accomplish its goals, even within the next decade," explained Forczyk. The problem is the artificial deadline. "There is no convincing argument why Artemis needed to be accomplished by 2024," she continued. "And so we're not seeing Congress at this point buy into that advanced, accelerated date." That, despite Congress' general support of NASA's human spaceflight activities.

    But Dittmar argues that a deadline -- even an artificial one -- is a good thing. "I think it's good because it injects urgency," she said. "I think it's good geopolitically because it sends a message to other nations. I think it's really good because we need to get the US back into deep space in order to provide assurance for our international partners, our industries, what's called commercial space -- once the United States is back out there in deep space on a regular, somewhat predictable basis, doing things that it announces well in advance, that's going to provide some certainty and also some assurance for other entities that want to get involved." It will stimulate the industry and perhaps even create a deep space economy.

    "If you're going to accelerate these programs, you're also going to have to accelerate funding."

    But none of that will happen without Congress's approval. Dittmar recently testified about Artemis in front of the Senate, and one of her major points was funding. "One of the things I said was if you're going to accelerate these programs, you're also going to have to accelerate funding. You have to move funding forward," she told Engadget.

    NASA has estimated that between now and that first Moon landing, Artemis will cost around $20 to $30 billion. That's on top of the organization's current budget. To start with, NASA has requested a sort of "down payment," in Forczyk's words, of $1.6 billion. "They're asking for this small percentage to start with, and even that has not gotten traction within Congress yet," she said. "We're waiting for the Senate to react, but so far the House has not been willing to allocate that kind of money within their FY 2020 budget."

    NASA will use its mobile launcher to assemble, process and launch the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft.

    What's next?

    Whether Congress allocates the money for Artemis or not, NASA will return to the Moon. But there are lingering questions about when it will happen and how we will get there. Will Congress approve NASA's funding requests for Project Artemis? Will this serve as a second moonshot, but this time propel the US (and the world) into deep space, sending humans on the first exploration missions in five decades?

    What is for sure is that Artemis will progress in stages. While much of the construction and contracts are underway to build the pieces that will come together for this vast undertaking, it still isn't certain whether Congress will approve the funds to make it happen. If they don't, and soon, the 2024 goal is a non-starter. We might make it by 2028, the original goal, or beyond, but to do it in six years, NASA needs the money to make it happen.

    It's not clear Project Artemis will end up taking us back to the moon. But it does seem poetic that, on this 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing, we look to the skies and contemplate returning to the lunar surface -- for good this time.

    Images: NASA / Fred Deaton (LOX tank); NASA / Flickr (Ascent-abort test); NASA / Jamie Peer (mobile launcher); NASA (all others).

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