The space agencies and private companies around the world are now focusing towards a renewed era of lunar exploration after fifty years The United States put the first man on the moon. A former NASA employee, Keith Cowing who now edits nasawatch.com, says: “Everyone is running in the general direction of the moon. I think there is a kind of moon fever, that’s got everybody interested.”
India is planing to launch Chandrayaan-2 mission examining the moon’s southern pole by September this year, which if successful would make them only the fourth country to land anything on the moon. The spacecraft with a mass of 3.8 tonnes has three modules–Orbiter, Lander (Vikram) and Rover (Pragyan).
In January this year, China became the first nation to successfully send a lunar probe “Chang’e 4 spacecraft” to study the far side of the moon,a place no one has ever been before. Their next mission is scheduled for launch at the end of this year and is designed to robotically return 2kg of moon rocks to Earth for analysis.
There has been an announcement couple weeks ago by US space agency NASA concerning the matter about it’s accelerated timeline to build the first lunar orbit outpost, and put the first woman on moon by 2024.
The prospect of astronauts returning to the moon got real in late April according to the NASA employee, Ryan Zeigler. He took a call in his Houston laboratory from the space agency’s headquarters in Washington DC.
“They said: ‘So, we’re going back to the moon,’” he recalls, just few days after the phone call. “I’m like: ‘Yeah, about that…’”
Alongside many others at Nasa, now he has got half time to do the work he had to do. Unlike others, Zeigler’s job does not begin the moment the astronauts set foot on the moon, but the moment they arrive back on Earth. He is the manager of the Astromaterials Acquisition & Curation Office at Nasa’s Johnson Space Center, Houston, and is in charge of the 2,200 samples brought back from the moon by the Apollo missions half a century ago.
Now the new rocks would be arriving back on Earth in 2024 – rather than the “2028 at the earliest” that everyone was expecting and the phone call was to warn Zeigler that a curation plan would be needed for the same.
The trouble is that the plans are at such an early stage that no one at Nasa headquarters knows exactly where the astronauts will land yet – and therefore what kind of rocks Zeigler might have to look after.
The samples collected by Apollo have told us that the moon almost certainly formed after a cataclysmic collision between Earth and another planet more than 4bn years ago, but the details remain highly elusive. They have also suggested that an intense bombardment of the planets occurred 3.9bn years ago that could have been instrumental in the development of life on Earth. However, doubts have recently been raised about this scenario. To solve both mysteries, fresh rocks from different lunar locations would be needed.
There is no guarantee Congress will grant this request. The biggest question Nasa will be asked is: why the sudden rush?
Vice-President Mike Pence spoke following a meeting of America’s National Space Council at another Nasa centre, the Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, that’s when the unexpected call began on 26th march. He told the gathered press that the White House had charged Nasa with getting Americans back to the moon within the next five years, almost slashing in half the previous time frame Nasa and its international partners had been working towards. After few days a statement by the Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed about the that beginning of an internal rearrangement to accelerate their programme and working towards landing astronauts somewhere close to the lunar south pole by 2024.
“I know Nasa is ready for the challenge of moving forward to the moon, this time to stay,” said Bridenstine.
For nearly a month, Nasa said little else, leaving pundits and commentators to fill the void about whether it was possible and how much it would cost.
Then, on 13 May, Nasa called a media teleconference in Washington DC with less than 90 minutes’ notice to talk about the new mission.
As the events unfold it turns out that Apollo had a twin sister, Artemis. She happens to be the goddess of the moon. Our astronaut office is very diverse and highly qualified. I think it is very beautiful that 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis programme will carry the next man – and the first woman – to the moon,” said Bridenstine.
The center of concern, however, was that Nasa declined to state how much they would need in total to perform this mission. Instead they asked for a “downpayment” of $1.6bn in addition to their already agreed $21.5bn budget for 2020 to get things started.
While for many years Nasa had dismissed such achievements as simply catching up with something they did decades before, now the mindset is changing, says Cowing. “Here in the US it’s like: ‘Well, wait a minute, why aren’t we going?’”
Nasa’s original plans for returning to the moon largely depends on a strong collaboration with the countries that came together on the International Space Station. Nasa is testing a gargantuan rocket known as the Space Launch System. Bigger than the original lunar rockets, it would propel its Orion space capsule to the moon, where it would dock with a space station in lunar orbit known as the Lunar Gateway. From here, the lunar lander would ferry astronauts to the moon’s surface.
The Lunar Gateway was to be the biggest area of collaboration but in order to meet the new time frame, Nasa proposes to “descope” the gateway, so that a smaller version can be ready in time. This largely removes the need for the international partners to accelerate their own programmes to match Nasa. Instead, there is the option for them to complete the original full version of the gateway on the original time frame to facilitate future lunar visits.
However, one issue international cooperation is still worried about is on the the Orion crew spacecraft. Nasa is only making the crew compartment, whereas the European Space Agency (Esa) is building almost everything else. They will provide a service module which is a large cylindrical spacecraft that attaches to the crew capsule and supplies it with power and propulsion. Without this, Orion will be going nowhere.
David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at Esa, is certain regarding the supply of all the Orion service modules that Nasa needs as soon as it needs them. According to him there are already two service modules which are in various stages of completion and is setting up the construction of the third- the one that could take astronauts to the lunar surface.
“We’ve just been waiting for Nasa to say they’re ready to put boots on the moon,” says Parker.
Even if they can justify the need to race back to the moon, there is still the big question of whether Nasa will get the money. In the usual process of things, Nasa contracts the big US aerospace companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin to make rockets and flight hardware according to their specifications. As with everything bespoke, the price tag is heartrending.
If the Congress doesn’t agree to this price, Nasa could change tack and suggest buying in cheaper, commercial hardware from companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin to get the job done.