The year 2022 should mark an important step in the return to the moon. In fact, the first mission of the new American moon program Artemis has to start in a few months. What will be the process and the technical and economic challenges of this major space project that will span the entire decade?
The Artemis I mission, announced for the end of August at the earliest, will mark the first launch of NASA’s new giant launch vehicle, the SLS (space launch system). The program originally planned for the end of 2016 is facing significant delays. Last April, the last big test before the start, the wet dress rehearsal, revealed several technical problems, particularly related to filling the tanks with liquid oxygen and hydrogen. NASA therefore had to send the launch vehicle back to their assembly shop for repairs. A new test is scheduled to take place on June 20, 2022 at Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The Artemis I mission can only take place once this test has been validated. It must be said that the SLS is a particularly complex technical object. At 70 tons and almost 100 meters high, it will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever built, surpassing the legendary Saturn V, which carried 24 American astronauts to the moon between 1968 and 1972.
Three steps to return to the moon
At the top of the SLS is the Orion spacecraft in which the astronauts will travel. Orion uses the architecture of its big brother, the Apollo module, but with larger dimensions. Thus, four astronauts can travel to the moon during each mission, compared to three at the time of Apollo.
But first, an empty Orion ship will be launched from the SLS to test all phases of the mission. It will remain in orbit around the moon for several days to allow NASA engineers to verify its performance. Thanks to the engines of its service module built by the European Space Agency, it will then return to Earth to test the critical phases of atmosphere reentry and landing.
If this dress rehearsal succeeds, a first manned flight will follow during the Artemis II mission, currently planned for mid-2024. Like their Apollo 8 predecessors, the mission’s four astronauts will fly over the moon, but not land on it. We must therefore wait for Artemis III to see the real return of a crew to the surface of our satellite. After leaving Orion to land on the HLS (Human Landing System) two astronauts, including the first woman to walk on the moon, will spend nearly a week on the surface, more than double the record set during the Apollo missions. However, the mission, scheduled for 2025, could be delayed by several years, according to the latest report from NASA’s inspector general.
At the same time, a space station, the Gateway, will be erected in orbit around the moon from the end of 2024. It is much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS) and will be based on a similar partnership between American, European and European space agencies. Japanese and Canadians, but this time without Russia. Ultimately, at least three European astronauts will remain on board this station in lunar orbit, one of the modules of which is already being built in France.
Stay long term
The Gateway is one of the major differences between the Artemis and Apollo programs. By offering a transit point and place of experimentation between Earth and Moon, it is presented as an ingredient in the sustainability of the return to the Moon. Because NASA understood that there was a strong interest in going beyond a symbolic and timely return to the moon after winning the race more than fifty years ago. As the American astrophysicist John Horack pointed out in 2019, the motivations for a return to the moon today are less geopolitical than economic. The Artemis Accords, to which France has just joined, for example, explicitly provide for the possibility of extracting resources from the moon, although the viability of the associated economic models is far from proven.
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The American space agency is also promoting the creation of a commercial ecosystem around the moon. In program Commercial lunar payload services (CLPS), private actors are funded to build ships that can land on the moon and deposit instruments or robots there, which can also be developed by private companies. Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic Technology’s lunar landers will be the first to attempt the maneuver, in principle by the end of 2022.
Using the same logic, the HLS that will land the astronauts on the moon has also been awarded to a private partner, SpaceX. Elon Musk’s company is not content with just being a service provider and is developing its own projects at the same time. For example, she announced that she had sold Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa a ticket for a tourist flight in orbit around the moon, easier and cheaper than landing on the moon. Originally announced for next year, the deadlines are unlikely to be met considering SpaceX has encountered setbacks in the development of its new Starship launcher.
A new international impetus
Gaining a foothold in the long term is also the challenge for the only two other space powers to have successfully landed on the moon: Russia and China. If Russia is a historic player in the race for the moon, like the United States, China has made a notable comeback, landing a lunar module on the far side of the moon for the first time in 2019 and successfully conducting a return of lunar rocks to Earth in 2019 year 2020.
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China and Russia announced in 2021 that they wanted to join forces to build an orbital station thatInternational Lunar Research Station (ILRS), planned for early 2030s. Several robotic missions are planned by then, including Chang’e 6 on the Chinese side and Luna 25 on the Russian side. The name of this last mission, scheduled for this fall, is a continuation of the Soviet Luna program, of which Luna 24 was the last representative since 1976. Other countries, India, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Japan, are also planning missions to the moon in the coming months.
In the long term, the idea behind the Artemis program to reuse the developments made for a first trip to the planet Mars by 2040 is that of the Artemis program, which despite costing NASA nearly $100 billion is still a long way from a permanent installation allow the moon. Making our satellite itself a target is the challenge space players must face long before they hope to reach the red planet.