Those of us around in the early 60s remember Jackie Gleason’s trademark response to his wife Alice, yet the Moon has captivated mankind ever since man started looking up into the sky. The story of our return to the moon is filled with milestones, innovation and creativity.
Why Go Back?
The technological innovations that come from human exploration of the Moon have direct practical applications here on Earth. Technology developed by NASA, according to “how stuff works” is now used in everything from infant formula to cell phones. We now have robotic surgical capabilities. Aircraft flights are much safer due to deicing chemicals developed by NASA. Other items you may or may not realize as being developed by the space program include better sunglasses, memory foam, freeze-dried food, microchips and cordless tools to name just a few. You get the picture.
Developing the technology necessary to establish a human presence on the Moon will have untold applications in the future. Moon exploration can give us a wealth of information about our sun, our solar system, and earth.
The Moon also has exciting potential resources, according to NASA. Mining rare earth elements and platinum group metals can provide valuable commercial development. Helium-3 could be used to power nuclear fusion reactors, fueling clean energy development. Creating the technology to explore and extract the Moon’s resources will help us learn to extract resources from asteroids.
Perhaps the most valuable resource on the Moon is water in the form of ice. Lunar ice can help us replenish oxygen and create rocket fuel that propels us to Mars. The two elements that make up water can be separated and converted to the basic elements of rocket fuel: liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Using the Moon as a refueling station will allow us to launch from Earth without being weighed down by all the fuel needed for the entire Mars journey.
Lunar ice is just one of many reasons that our ambition to visit Mars and travel deeper into space requires us to first return to the Moon. It will give us the ability to develop and test technology, life-support, radiation protection, communications, and propulsion systems to safely send humans to Mars.
Okay, So How Do We Get From Here to There?
From NASA’s Artemis webpage, there are 4 integral parts to getting us back to the Moon safely and returning multiple times.
The Space Launch System
SLS is the heavy-lift launch vehicle that will get Artemis hardware first into orbit around Earth, then to the Moon. SLS is designed to be flexible, based on the needs of the mission: launching crew or cargo to Earth orbit, sending material and personnel to the Moon, etc. The rocket will thus be available in different configurations, known as blocks.
The SLS Block 1 will be able to lift more than 59,000 pounds (26,760 kilograms) to the Moon; later versions will lift more than 100,000 pounds (45,360 kg) to the Moon. Crewed versions of the SLS will carry an escape system atop the Orion crew capsule, whereas cargo versions will not. SLS can carry payloads of various sizes, depending on what a given mission requires.
SLS consists of two solid rocket boosters (SRBs) attached to a central liquid-fueled core stage. Although on the surface, this looks a lot like the Space Shuttle Program’s launch vehicle, these SRBs are larger than those used for the Space Shuttle. This will allow Artemis to send payloads beyond Earth’s orbit.
The core stage looks like the one used for the space shuttle. The Artemis core stage not only carries the same liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuel tanks, but will also house four engines. The space shuttle’s external tank had no engines of its own. Instead, NASA used the shuttle orbiter’s three main engines. The Artemis core stage will hold more than 500,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and almost 200,000 gallons of liquid oxygen. Wow, think about THAT gas bill!
The Orion Spacecraft
The Orion spacecraft will carry crews. Like Apollo, Orion will also be topped by a launch escape system that fits over the crew module (CM). Its three solid rocket motors can be ignited if a situation arises requiring the astronauts to separate from SLS during launch.
The Orion crew module (CM) is larger than its Apollo predecessor and can accommodate four astronauts per mission, as compared to Apollo’s three. While the longest Apollo mission (Apollo 17) lasted about 12 and a half days, Orion is designed to accommodate spaceflights up to 21 days in length.
In contrast to Apollo’s crowded control panels, which featured hundreds of manual switches and controls designed to be operated by hands in bulky pressure suit gloves, Orion will be fully controllable via just a small number of flatscreen interfaces (similar to SpaceX’s manned Dragon spacecraft) with limited switches.
Orion also carries four solar panels. These panels are stowed during launch and deployed once Orion is safely in space.
The Lunar Orbiter – “Gateway”
The design of the Lunar Orbiter -Gateway- is very original and is a manned space station that will orbit the Moon. Gateway will be about 1/6 the size of the International Space Station (ISS) currently in use. It will serve a variety of functions: a local “mission control” for crewed missions to the lunar surface, a site for spacecraft to rendezvous on trips between the Moon and Earth, a platform for astronomical observations, a space-based science laboratory. One day Gateway will serve as a launch point for missions to Mars.
Gateway will be constructed in stages, with different modules and components launched into space at different times. NASA has contracted with SpaceX to use its Falcon Heavy rocket to loft the first two components of the station into space. The pair will be integrated on the ground before launch. Other modules will be added later on, including a habitation module.
The Lunar Lander
The Lunar Lander will ferry astronauts to and from the lunar surface. Once the Orion spacecraft nears the Moon and docks with the Gateway in orbit, astronauts will use the Lunar Lander to step foot on the Moon. It is basically a hybrid design of the Apollo lunar lander. NASA has selected three companies: Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX to develop the lunar landing system for the Artemis Program.
The First Three Missions
NASA details the first three flights to the Moon on its Artemis webpages.
NASA aims to launch Artemis I, an uncrewed flight test of the Orion spacecraft, sometime during the late 2022. Artemis I will travel 280,000 miles from Earth in the direction of the Moon, pass it, and not land on its lunar surface. If all goes to plan, Artemis I will return to Earth after setting a new record for the most time in space without docking to the ISS.
After the success of Artemis I, and in mid to late 2023, Artemis II will launch as the first crewed flight of the Orion spacecraft. Orion will circle the Earth twice and possibly fire up its engine allowing it to be propelled towards the Moon. After orbiting the Moon, Orion will use the Moon’s gravitational pull to slingshot itself back to Earth with the crew for a safe landing.
The year 2025 marks the main event with Artemis III, a second crewed flight aboard the Orion spacecraft. Once in orbit, the spacecraft will dock with the Gateway that is currently being built. The astronauts will transfer to the lunar lander, allowing for the first woman and next man to step foot on the Moon’s south pole.
The Artemis Team
On December 9, 2020, NASA announced the Artemis Team, consisting of the top nine men and woman astronauts selected to lead the way for missions to the Moon. One of the nine women will be the first to step foot on the lunar surface.
5 Million Parts, All By The Lowest Bidder…….”
Considering the short timeline until we once again land on the Moon, we’re still facing some large technical and financial challenges. Development of the Artemis space suits alone is now projected to cost $1 billion, and the entire Artemis project is currently estimated to cost $93 billion through 2025. NASA is eager to move forward with the Artemis program, but has had several setbacks, including COVID-19 and its related supply chain issues.
The space race that took all of us on a flight of imagination with Apollo to the Moon had the nation’s support. Artemis is a much different program, one that has limitless possibilities and includes the eventual landing on Mars. A different program for a different century, one in which few remember the saying “to the Moon Alice! “God’s speed Artemis!”
Tom Lockie is the Transportation and Travel Editor for the Citizens Journal Florida. A veteran and recently retired airline Captain, Tom considers aviation and travel his ongoing passions . Tom is a published author, featured in the USA Today for his children’s book “Come Fly with Me“.