We Are Going Back to the Moon
After more than 50 years, the human race is finally going back to the Moon with Artemis. While NASA ended lunar flights back in 1972, it plans to move forward by flying back to the Moon and beyond. If everything goes according to plan, astronauts are set to land on the lunar south pole in late 2024. While this plan has been labelled unrealistic by some experts, NASA and its partners have a new sense of ambition and drive that hasn't been seen for decades.
NASA has already spent $420 million on lunar research and development since 2007, and it plans to drop another $625 million just to make two spacesuits flight-ready. This significant investment is presenting challenges in the current economic climate. According to a recent NASA report, "funding shortfalls, COVID-19 impacts, and technical challenges" could delay the lunar mission beyond the 2024 date. NASA had originally been targeting 2028 for the next Moon landing, and this could end up being closer to reality.
The latest chapter of space exploration is looking very different, with NASA set to lead a coalition of nations and industry partners instead of going it alone. The recent commercialisation of low-orbit space has changed the landscape, and NASA has been forced to adjust. NASA is implementing the President’s Space Policy Directive-1 to “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system.”
The relationships between nations and commercial giants has not all been cooperative, however, with in-fighting among global elites already causing problems. Legal issues between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have delayed the mission. Jeff Bezos’s rocket company, Blue Origin, stalled work for months as a legal challenges was made on the Starship lunar landing system, which was partially developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Money is still needed to develop a landing system for the Artemis Moon program, with funds also required for the Orion capsules. The space agency has requested a bigger budget for its Orion capsules, from $6.7 billion to $9.3 billion. In addition, the global pandemic has caused delays, with storm damage to NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans also slowing things down. Overall, development costs for the first test Artemis flight stand at $11 billion alone.
Despite these issues, NASA is targeting February 2022 for the first test flight of its Moon rocket, the Space Launch System, complete with an Orion capsule. While no-one will be on-board the first flight, it will be a great indicator of progress. While it's not exactly a race, the US is keen to return to the Moon before China, which has an ambitious, aggressive, and largely opaque space program of its very own. There is also a important cultural side to this story, as NASA works "to get the first woman and the first person of color to the lunar surface... [and] restore America’s standing in the world.”