Soon NASA ‘s Artemis I mission will take off, the first mission of the Artemis program , with which NASA wants to return to the Moon. For more than 50 years no human has landed on the surface of our satellite . The last time was with the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Now NASA wants to send humans back to the Moon (including the first women to land on the satellite). But not only that. These five decades have served so that the US agency has learned about space exploration and new technologies have been developed, with which they intend to establish a permanent lunar base . near the south pole of the Moon and a space station in orbit around the satellite that serves as a connection point between the surfaces of both stars. But is NASA’s plan realistic? Or even why give so many resources to these lunar missions when private companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin have their goals set on the red planet?
To answer these questions, let’s first see what goals NASA has set for this Artemis program. The program will have its first launch soon (hopefully), with a mission whose objective is to test all the systems that will take four astronauts to lunar orbit and two of them to the surface in future missions. Specifically, the Artemis II mission will take four astronauts to orbit the Moon in May 2024 (if all goes according to plan), while the Artemis III mission will return humans to the lunar surface in 2025 , after 53 years without it receiving a visit from humanity.
These missions will be essentially very similar to the one currently in the works, with the addition during Artemis III of the lunar landing maneuver. After this first return to the Moon, the launches will stop to take the rocket to its next level . This will increase the cargo capacity to lunar orbit by several tons. This is necessary because the next planned missions do not have the sole objective of landing on the moon, but of starting the construction of the systems that will make a more permanent presence on the Moon possible . Missions whose only objective is to land on the moon are too expensive for the little useful time on the surface of the satellite that can be achieved with them. By building a space station in orbit around the Moon and later a permanent base on its surface, NASA hopes to extend future landings by allowing us to get the most out of these expensive and complex missions.
The following missions, Artemis IV, V and VI will each carry a module of the future Gateway space station , located in lunar orbit, during the years 2027 and 2028. The Artemis IV mission will carry the I-HAB module, the main module habitat and logistics, designed by ESA and JAXA. The Artemis V mission will add to this first habitat the ESPRIT module that will include the refueling infrastructure as well as telecommunications and extra habitat space. Finally, the Artemis VI mission will add a new module yet to be determined to the Gateway station.
These missions of course will not be the only ones that add modules, but will be complemented by other auxiliary missions that will add telecommunications modules, solar panels and other components, but they will not be manned missions. The Artemis V and VI missions, in addition to transporting modules to lunar orbit, will include moon landings , but this time taking advantage of the infrastructure built in orbit. The V mission will actually bring to the lunar surface an unpressurized vehicle that the astronaut team can drive during their missions.
These are the confirmed missions and for which the budget has been approved by the corresponding organizations. However, there are 5 other proposed missions beyond Artemis VI, which although they have not yet been budgeted, are expected to be carried out. These missions will see another upgrade to the rocket that will lift off from Earth with cargo on board and will focus on building and supplying a base on the surface of the Moon .
The Artemis VII and Artemis IX missions should carry two modules that will serve as a habitat and operations center for any operation carried out on the surface , while the other three missions will add other key instruments for the mission, such as telecommunications infrastructure, instruments for the use of in situ resources , to extract water from localized ice deposits or to generate oxygen from minerals on the lunar surface), as well as any type of vehicle or instrument that the team of astronauts may need.
These missions will take off at a rate of one a year to complete the first human base on the Moon in 2033, unless another special agency gets ahead of the US. China is probably the only country with the capacity and the motivation to try something like this in the barely 11 years that separate us from that date.
This program has received numerous complaints from experts in the aerospace sector, calling it, on the one hand, too optimistic in its time and aspirations and, on the other, that the creation of the Gateway space station is a distraction from the most important objective, which is to land on Mars. Only time will tell who was right.
NASA’s Management of the Gateway Program for Artemis Missions, Office of Inspector General (OIG), NASA , Nov 2020
NASA Artemis, NASA, 2022, https://www.nasa.gov/specials/artemis/