The Artemis Program has the ambitious goal to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024.
Named after Artemis, the Greek goddess of the Moon and twin sister to Apollo, the program will lead humanity back to the Moon and prepare it for the exploration of Mars. In the NASA’s Lunar Exploration Program Overview, Jim Bridenstine stated that: “Pushing the boundaries of space exploration, science, and technology once again, America is on the verge of exploring more of the Moon than ever before“.
Almost 50 years have passed since astronauts last walked on the Moon. Since then the American space program was mainly focused on a robotic space exploration and on the mastery of low Earth orbit through the Space Shuttle program and collaboration with the Mir station and the International Space Station (ISS).
However the last decades have been rich in information and knowledge gained. Space probes sent through space and rovers sent to Mars have enabled us to recover an enormous amount of data on the planets of the Solar system. In 20 years of continuous occupation, the ISS has allowed us both to carry out a number of scientific experiments and to better understand how the human body reacts in micro gravity and to the radiations emitted for instance. All this with the ultimate goal in mind of preparing for the first manned mission to Mars.
On March 2019, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the White House asked NASA to accelerate its human space exploration programs and to fly astronauts to the Moon by 2024. Pence explained that the mission will be characterized by the fact that “The first woman and the next man on the Moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil“.
Why Go Back To The Moon?
On December 2017, U.S President Donald Trump issued the Presidential Memorandum on Reinvigorating America’s Human Space Exploration Program, also known as the Space Policy Directive 1. Almost indistinguishable from Obama’s space policy, this memorandum reaffirmed the will of the United States to return to the Moon as soon as possible.
After a decade of operation, the Apollo program was stopped in 1972 for political and financial reasons. Those in charge of the program could no longer justify its high cost to a Congress and a public that had lost interest in the missions. Moreover the goal of this program, which was to beat the Soviet Union in the space race was completed in 1969, so why continue such an expensive program? Therefore, after several years of lack of interest why is the Moon once again the center of attention?
There are a multitude of reasons for this. First of all, the exploration and exploitation of the Moon are necessary if one wishes to send men to Mars. A manned mission on the red planet is a real challenge which requires of lot of data, knowledge and experience to design and optimize all aspects of such a mission i.e the propulsion system, the spaceship, the habitats, the space suits but also the fuel management, the management of vital resources, the human reaction etc. 400.000 kilometers away, the Moon is still hostile territory little known to humans that will have to be understood. Still the Moon will provide a safer ground to test the technologies that will take humans to Mars and beyond, as in case of an accident rescue could be quickly send.
Second, the return of man to the Moon is justified by the many scientific discoveries of recent years. The rovers sent to our natural satellite have discovered sources of frozen water that could potentially serve as drinkable water for humans in the future. But mostly at a chemical level, water can be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen atoms. Oxygen alone can be used as a breathable air for humans and oxygen combined with hydrogen can be used as rocket propellant.
Rare earths elements deposits were also discovered on the Moon, which are widely used in several industries such as new technologies and automobile but these resources on Earth are quite low and are running out.
Helium-3 in abundance was also detected. This element would provide a clean source of nuclear energy, whose supposed abundance would be sufficient to meet the energy needs of humanity over several millennia. Therefore the Moon could become the future gas station for space ships heading to Mars and beyond in the next decades.
As a result of all these scientific discoveries, the Moon could become the place of commerce in a near future. More and more private companies are entering the space activities market and hence the Moon represents a business opportunity: helium-3 or rare earth elements mining, launch of payload for scientific research etc.
Finally, this desire to return to the Moon can also be justified by a more human or philosophical reason. Indeed, of the twelve men who walked on the Moon, only 4 are still alive: Buzz Aldrin (90), David Scott (87), Charles Duke (83) and Harrison Schmitt (84). The risk is to soon find ourselves in a world where no man has walked on the Moon, which is an idea that runs counter to the progress of technology.
But why 2024? As explained in NASA’s Lunar Exploration Program Overview of September 2020, the United States are currently the leader of space exploration but more and more countries as well as private companies are starting to have the capacity to carry out complex missions such as sending rovers on the Moon and soon they will also be able to send men on it. So if the United States wants to maintain its leadership position in the field, the country must return to the Moon as soon as possible and 2024 is the earliest date possible to achieve this mission.
The Artemis Transportation System
NASA has decided to only use the Space Launch System as the launch vehicle for the Artemis missions. The Space Launch System (SLS) is a super heavy-lift launch vehicle developed by NASA since 2011. SLS represents the new generation of NASA’s launch vehicle and will be used for the agency deep space exploration plans. Currently SLS undergoes the final test of the Green Run test series which is a comprehensive assessment of the rocket’s core stage.
SLS will launch the Orion spacecraft, a partially reusable space capsule manufactured both by Lockheed Martin and Airbus Defense and Space. Orion is designed to serve in deep space exploration missions. The testing phase was over for Orion, but engineers recently discovered that one of its instruments had suffered a failure, which apparently will not affect Artemis I.
In parallel the Lunar Gateway is a project led by NASA but in cooperation with Canada, Europe and Japan, that consists of a small space station placed in lunar orbit. It will be used as a communication hub, a science laboratory, a short-term habitation module as well as well as an area for rovers and robots. The Lunar Gateway will be used in the Artemis program but is expected to fully serve future missions towards the Moon and Mars.
The Objectives Of Artemis
Science Goals, as defined by NASA, in its Artemis Plan are the following:
- Understanding planetary processes;
- Understanding volatile cycles;
- Interpreting the impact history of the Earth-Moon system;
- Revealing the record of the ancient Sun;
- Observing the universe from a unique location;
- Conduction experimental science in the lunar environment;
- Investigating and Mitigating exploration risks to humans.
As explained by Sarah Noble, a lunar program scientist at NASA, humans will allow to perform more subtle experiments and investigations, something that currently impossible for rovers. She continued by saying that “We have opposable thumbs, which makes it easier to do more complicated things like drilling cores and digging trenches“. On top of that astronauts will react more quickly which will allow us to get through missions quicker.
The Artemis program is divided into three missions.
Firstly, on April 2021 Artemis I will take place. It is an uncrewed mission that will test the Space Launch System and the Orion module.
Then in late 2022 there will be Artemis II which will send a four astronauts crew to the lunar environment. The crew will fly the Orion module beyond the Moon, complete a lunar flyby and return to Earth. The 10 day mission will collect flight data and help confirm the communication and navigation systems.
And finally the third mission, the climax, Artemis III will send the first woman and the next man on the Moon, on the lunar south pole, by 2024.
Woman On The Moon
All the astronauts who walked on the Moon were men. The Artemis III mission will therefore send a woman to the Moon for the first time.
Recently eighteen astronauts have been selected to be part of the Artemis program, among them nine are women: Kayla Barron, Christina Koch, Nicole Mann, Anne McClain, Jessica Meir, Jasmin Moghbeli, Kate Rubins, Jessica Watkins and Stephanie Wilson.
Several women have marked the history of the conquest of space. Valentina Tereshkova became in 1963 the first woman in space. Astronaut Mae Jemison became the first African American woman to travel to space. But it was only in 2008 that for the first time a woman became commander of a mission, when Peggy Whitson was named commander of the International Space Station (ISS).
For a very long time, the milieu remained predominantly male oriented. But things have started to change for the past few years and new steps have recently been taken for women in space. The first all-women spacewalk was conduct on October 18, 2019 by Christina Koch and Jessica Meir.
Sending a woman to the Moon is therefore an important step, which will be highly symbolic.
The Artemis program is shaping up to be the next major step in the conquest of space and will surely inspire the new generation to pursue scientific careers. It will also revive the general public’s interest in space.
But the date of 2024 appears more and more as too short of a deadline. Remember that 2024 was also chosen because it coincided with the end date of a possible second term of Donald Trump. Due to the Covid-19 crisis and restrictive funding, the future Biden Administration may slow down Artemis program.