2020: the decade of return to the Moon

The return of humans to the Moon is planned for 2024 as part of the Artemis program: fifty-five years after Apollo, the crew should be made up of a man and a woman with the objective of installing a perennial base on our natural satellite. A project in which Europe and France will be associated.

Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology. Now, she personifies our path to the Moon as the name of NASA’s program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, including the first woman and the next man. When they land, the American astronauts will step foot where no human has ever been before: the Moon’s South Pole.

NASA is committed to landing American astronauts, including the first woman and the next man, on the Moon by 2024. NASA’s powerful new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), will send astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft to lunar orbit. Astronauts will dock Orion at the Gateway where they will live and work around the Moon. The crew will take expeditions from the Gateway to the surface of the Moon in a new human landing system before returning to the orbital outpost. Crew will ultimately return to Earth aboard Orion. The American space agency will fly two missions around the Moon to test its deep space exploration systems. NASA is working toward launching Artemis I in 2020, an uncrewed flight to test the SLS and Orion spacecraft together. Artemis II, the first SLS and Orion flight with crew, is targeted for launch in 2022. NASA will land astronauts on the Moon by 2024 on the Artemis III mission and about once a year thereafter.

Half a century after Neil Armstrong’s small step, humanity is preparing to return to the Moon. But this time, the United States of America doesn’t just want to pass over our satellite; the goal is to stay there. A new rocket is in development, a new spacecraft as well, as well as a new station which will orbit the Moon. Another difference from the 1960s: other countries will be associated. Europe and France will be there and should even be entitled to a few tickets for their astronauts.

The six Apollo missions that brought humans to the Moon did not stay long on our natural satellite. Apollo 11, the first, only “stayed” there for around twenty hours when the longest stays on site did not exceed three days (Apollo 15, 16 and 17). “This time, when we go to the Moon, we will stay” warned Jim Bridenstine, administrator of NASA, several times. “The Americans say they want to return to the Moon to stay there” confirms Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of the CNES (French National Center for Space Studies), in charge of the French space program. “The idea is to conduct scientific studies that we did not have time to do during the six Apollo missions, which happened fifty years ago; for example, we did not know that there was water on the Moon”. Today we know there is “water that could be drunk by astronauts and that could also be used to propel rocket; water containing oxygen and hydrogen”.

But by returning to the Moon, the United States of America sees even further: towards Mars, “because there is always this long-term project to go one day to Mars”. We realized that ultimately, the best way to prepare to go to the Red Planet was to train on the Moon. This is why the United States of America launched the famous Artemis program. Ultimately, Artemis aims to take over from the International Space Station (ISS), whose “retirement” should arrive around 2030, according to Jean-Yves Le Gall. Artemis would put into practice the same types of collaboration between countries as for the ISS, whose deployment in space had started in 1998. Artemis also plans to launch a new station: Gateway, but which this time would be in orbit around the Moon and not around the Earth. Gateway would also be a perennial station, with regular or even permanent human presence, like the lunar base on the ground, which must also see the light of day.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is one of the main partners of the International Space Station (ISS) and, since lunar exploration is intended to succeed the station, it will be somewhat the same principle; Europe will provide equipment, which will constitute part of the means that will be used to go to the Moon. Thus, the service module of the Orion capsule is developed by the European industry. “It’s sort of the engine room of the spacecraft that will transport astronauts between Earth and the Moon, and then, there are a number of bilateral cooperations with the United States of America, China and India. France is somewhat the champion of these bilateral cooperations because of the excellence of the scientific space community. France will send scientific instruments up there. Europe will play an important role in this lunar exploration”.

And in addition to technical and scientific cooperation, the return to the Moon could also allow Europeans to set foot on the ground of our natural satellite. “We have Europeans staying on board the ISS and so the idea is that they can go to the Moon as well. Negotiation is still to be done but that is the objective”. We could therefore have a Frenchman on the Moon before the end of the decade; it’s a possibility. We think of course of Thomas Pesquet because for the moment, there are no others. But it is a program that is being put in place. Thomas Pesquet, the main interested has already announced that he is a candidate. “I was personally fortunate enough to go into space once for two hundred days aboard the International Space Station” said the astronaut in a video message in English, broadcasted by the boss of Arianespace during the International Astronautical Congress, held in October in Washington D.C.. “But I always dreamed of going further and deeper into space. I really hope to take my part in this next stage of space exploration”.