Illustration of the moon gate. NASA
Gareth Dorrian, University of Birmingham
Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan stormed on December 14, 1972 in their lunar module Challenger from the Taurus-Littrow valley on the moon. Five days later, they splashed safely into the Pacific, closing the Apollo 17 mission, and becoming the last people they visited to visit the lunar surface or venture anywhere beyond low-earth orbit.
Now, the international Artemis program, led by NASA, aims to get humans back on the moon by 2024. However, it is becoming more and more likely that this goal could be missed.
President Nixon greets astronauts aboard the USS Hornet. Wikipedia
History shows how vulnerable space programs are, which require years of planning and development across multiple administrations. After Apollo 17, NASA had plans for several more lunar Apollo missions, including a possible flyby of Venus. However, budget cuts in the early 1970s and a re-prioritization of human space travel to focus on the Skylab project precluded further lunar missions at the time.
It wasn’t until July 20, 1989, the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, that President HW Bush opened the space exploration initiative. This included building a space station called Freedom, which would later become the International Space Station, to bring people back to the moon and eventually to conduct crewed missions to Mars.
The project should take place over a period of approximately 30 years. The first human flights back to the moon would take place in the late 1990s, followed by the establishment of a lunar base in the early 2010s. The estimated cost of the entire program, including the Mars missions, was $ 500 billion (£ 350 billion) spread over 20 to 30 years. This was a fraction of what would be spent on the 2003 Iraq war, but the project nonetheless met with resistance in the Senate and was later canceled by the Clinton administration in 1996.
Another eight years would pass before President GW Bush announced a revitalized vision for space exploration in 2004, in part in response to the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. In response, NASA started the Constellation program, which should oversee the completion of what is now the International Space Station and then take the space shuttle out of service. It would also include the development of two new crewed spacecraft: the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Altair Lunar Surface Access Module.
Orion, optimized for extended travel beyond low-earth orbit, should be developed by 2008, with the first crewed mission in 2014 at the latest and the first astronauts on the moon by 2020. To lift the Orion and Altair spacecraft, a new Series of launchers would be developed under the name Ares, with Ares V having a lifting capability more similar to the massive Saturn V rockets of the Apollo era.
President Obama took office in 2009 and launched a US space review in 2010 – the Augustine Commission. It found that the Constellation program was unsustainable with the current level of funding from NASA, fell behind schedule, and that a human Mars mission was not possible with current technology. The prototype of the Ares I rocket was launched from the Kennedy Space Center on October 28, 2009 on a successful test flight.
The Constellation program was canceled by President Obama in 2010. In the same year, the private company SpaceX launched its first flight with the Falcon 9 rocket. Obama’s space plans have been praised by some, including SpaceX founder Elon Musk, but criticized by others, including several Apollo astronauts.
The only significant survivor of Constellation was the Orion spacecraft, which was repurposed and renamed the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle or Orion MPCV. The Augustinian Commission recommended a number of more humble space exploration destinations for the United States, including Orion flights to near-Earth asteroids or to the moons of Mars instead of the planet’s surface. Orion’s first and so far only test flight in space (without astronauts) took place on December 5, 2014.
The future of Artemis
In December 2017, President Donald Trump signed the “Space Directive 1”, with which NASA was switched to a moon landing by 2024. Nasa implemented the Artemis program that same year and it was approved by the new Biden government. This is the first time in decades that a new US administration has continued the previous policy of human space travel.
Artemis is also an international program, with the Lunar Gateway – an international outpost on the moon – being an integral part of the project. The international nature of Artemis could make the program more resilient to political change, although the Lunar Gateway has already been delayed.
Orion’s first unscrewed test flight into lunar orbit, Artemis 1, is officially scheduled for the end of this year, with the return to the lunar surface in 2024 still in the books. The impact of the pandemic and recent technical concerns about the new and not yet flown space launch system could reverse this. Additionally, in 2020 NASA requested $ 3.2 billion (£ 2.3 billion) in development costs for the Human Lander System, a key component of the first lunar landing mission, Artemis 3. Congress approved only a fraction of the requests Cost and put the landing in further jeopardy for a 2024 date.
A delay of more than a year would move Artemis 3 beyond the end of President Biden’s first term. This would make it vulnerable to the many imponderables of US space-space policy that we have seen during most of the space era.
In contrast, Nasa’s Mars exploration program, which began in 1993 and whose goals are primarily driven by scientists rather than politicians, has resulted in a number of hugely successful robotic orbiters and lands, most recently the spectacular landing of the Perseverance rover in Jezero. Crater. Undoubtedly, robotic exploration of Mars has less political weight than human missions and is significantly cheaper – with no inherent risks to astronauts.
If the current Artemis 3 schedule applies, it will be 52 years between Cernan and Schmitt leaving the lunar surface in Challenger and the next human lunar visitors in 2024.
Gareth Dorrian, Postdoctoral Researcher in Space Science, University of Birmingham
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.