In 2010, during a speech at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, President Barack Obama directed NASA away from its primary target, the moon, to focus human exploration missions beyond the lunar surface on an asteroid and Mars.
“I have to say frankly here: we’ve been there before,” he said. “There’s a lot of space to explore, and a lot to learn when we do.”
The United States has since changed course, with the Moon once again becoming the focus of NASA’s exploration goals. Under its Artemis program — born under President Donald Trump and embraced by the Biden administration — NASA has real momentum and bipartisan political support for one of the most ambitious human spaceflight efforts in decades. It began launching its massive SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft on November 16, a mission with no one on board. The Artemis I mission will be followed by subsequent flights with astronauts – first orbiting the Moon and eventually landing on the surface.
But despite the progress, the concern Obama raised still lingers over the space program: We’ve been there, done that. Why go back to the moon?
The answer, said Thomas Zurbuchen, Recently retired chief of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, he starts with the presence of water.
“It’s important to realize that we’re going back to a really different moon than the one we left when we took off during the Apollo mission,” Zurbuchen said in an interview. “It was a dry moon…. Our understanding of the moon varies greatly.”
As a result, NASA has made establishing a permanent presence on the Moon central to its future space ambitions. It will allow the program to practice how to live in space sustainably. It will allow scientists to take advantage of the great scientific value of the Moon to learn more about how the Earth was formed. And, perhaps, it will also serve as a stepping stone to Mars and other deep space destinations in the future.
Not only is water key to sustaining human life, but its constituent parts – hydrogen and oxygen – can be used as propellant for rockets, making the moon a gas station in space. This could be critical for long-range missions, allowing spacecraft to refuel on the Moon instead of hauling all the fuel from Earth. Since the moon’s gravity is one-sixth that of Earth’s, it is a relatively easy stepping stone to other points in the solar system.
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The moon also has a story to tell – whether about the formation of the solar system or how the earth came to be. Without an atmosphere, it’s a time capsule. The steps of the Apollo astronauts are still intact, undisturbed by weather or wind, as are the scars of billions of years of bombardment by asteroids and comets that were part of the early formation of the solar system.
“It’s not about finding life itself, but it’s definitely about the journey to Zurbuchen said. “The moon can tell us a lot about our solar system, and the violent processes that created our planets and scarred their surfaces. … Part of our history is out there, hanging over our heads, and it is hugely possible to travel there.”
Getting to the moon is very difficult. Living there more than that, which isn’t something NASA has much experience with. The last Apollo crew, Apollo 17, spent the most time on the moon – just over three days. And that was in 1972.
Evolution from short-term probes to long-term lunar settlement—from exploration to expansion—will require a serious commitment of new resources and technologies.
This is why NASA is looking to build a nuclear reactor on the moon.
It’s one of several initiatives that NASA has begun under the Artemis program, designed to help astronauts stay for extended periods of time when they need the energy, transportation, and ability to use the moon’s resources. They’ll need habitats, rovers, and mining equipment, along with tools to extract the water and shape lunar regolith (aka moon dust) into briquettes for the habitat.
The effort is still in its infancy, and the funding NASA will need in the long term has not been fully realized. A sustainable existence, despite rosy predictions coming from the agency’s upper echelons, is still years away, and the technical challenges are formidable.
But NASA is beginning to develop the technologies that will be needed to keep astronauts on the surface for extended periods. In June of last year, the agency and the Department of Energy awarded contracts worth $5 million each to three companies to develop nuclear power systems that could be ready for launch by the end of the decade for a test on the Moon. The systems will generate 40 kilowatts of power, enough power to power six or seven US homes, and last about 10 years.
“They’re starting to invest real money in this technology development process,” said Casey Dreyer, chief advocate for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization that advocates for space exploration. “…I think this is a really important piece of technology that has broader applications beyond just the Moon, obviously, on Mars and probably other places as well.”
NASA is also looking to build solar farms, using arrays that point vertically and capture the angle of the sun above the horizon. It is exploring how best to exploit what are called “in situ resources” – that is, those that are already there, such as regolith.
“When people discovered Earth, they had the opportunity to build a home using local resources,” Pam Milroy, NASA deputy administrator and former astronaut, said in an interview. “So we should consider using lunar regolith to build facilities, and NASA is funding many efforts in this field.”
While for now these efforts are “modest,” Milroy said they involve using simulated regolith on Earth and seeing how they respond. “How do we compress it? Is there something we need to do to make it a building block?”
But some of those same resources can also create problems of their own, leaving NASA to figure out ways to deal with them.
“A lot of people don’t realize how dangerous regolith is, and how damaging it is to space suits and human lungs,” former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an interview. During some of the Apollo missions, “the regolith that got inside the capsule was very dangerous because it’s so fine and so sharp.”
There’s also the matter of figuring out how to find water on the Moon, and the best way to get there. NASA’s plan is to use the Volleyball Probe for Polar Exploration, or VIPER. NASA says it will explore the moon’s south pole in late 2024 on a 100-day mission.
“VIPER will help us use resources at the site by mapping out where the ice is,” Milroy said. “So when the astronauts show up, they’ll have a map in their hand showing where the ice is, and where might be the best place to build a gas station.”
The moon presents many challenges. But as NASA seeks to create a permanent settlement of what some have called the “eighth continent,” it also represents a huge opportunity.
It’s just three days away—close enough to get home in an emergency, as the Apollo 13 crew did—and it’s a natural place to practice how to live sustainably in deep space. The moon’s pole contains at least 600 billion kilograms of water ice — or enough to fill 240,000 Olympic-sized pools, according to the Planetary Society — and investigation on Earth could yield vast amounts more.
“Now is the time to take a giant leap by using the Moon to learn how to live on Earth, thereby enabling a sustainable human presence on Earth while stimulating a new sector of our economy,” Clive Neal, a professor of Earth sciences at the University of Notre Dame, told the National Space Council in 2019. There are platinum group and rare earth metals on the moon, as well as helium-3, a potential fuel for nuclear fusion. He said that these resources could help stimulate a lunar economy that would help maintain a permanent presence.
Although the Apollo program was a huge achievement, it “also showed us how not to do human space exploration because such a program based on international competition is not sustainable,” he said.
For the Artemis program, NASA is banking on a strong commercial space industry, led by SpaceX, which won the contract to develop the spacecraft that NASA will use to ferry its astronauts to and from the lunar surface.
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Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has also set its sights on the Moon. (Bezos owns the Washington Post.) Like SpaceX, Blue Origin is building a spacecraft capable of flying astronauts and cargo there for NASA. And in recent years, Blue Origin has hired a number of experts on how to extract lunar resources, such as water. Earlier this year, it said it was buying Honeybee Robotics, a company that builds systems for extreme environments and has developed technology found in Mars Perseverance and Curiosity.
“Our innovative solutions allow scientists to capture, contain and analyze samples of planetary regolith throughout our solar system,” says the company’s website. “We have designed, built and tested instrumentation specifically for all the planets between Mercury and Saturn, including the elusive asteroids and comets.”
First, NASA needs to get there. The successful Artemis I mission was a huge first step, a test flight that NASA said was flawless in which the Orion spacecraft flew within 80 miles of the lunar surface, capturing dramatic images along the way before returning to Earth.
The crash in the Pacific Ocean occurred 50 years to the day of the Apollo 17 mission that landed on the moon and symbolized the space agency’s renewed commitment to the moon. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the significance of the Apollo program was to turn “the impossible and make it possible.” “Now we will do it again, but with a different purpose. This time we will return to the moon to learn, live, work, invent and create in order to go out into the universe for further exploration.”
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