With its Artemis program, NASA strives to establish a multi-national colony on the moon before the end of the decade, and use what we learn there to make the next giant leap to Mars.
NEARLY 50 YEARS AFTER astronauts last set foot on the moon, NASA is once again leading the human race in its first tottering steps toward the stars. This time, scientists and astronauts are tasked with establishing a permanent off-Earth colony on the moon’s south pole — a way station to Mars and worlds beyond.
Just as President John Kennedy in 1961 tasked NASA with sending astronauts to the moon and back by the end of that decade under the Apollo program, our space agency has once again set the most ambitious possible pace to establish the lunar colony, before the end of this decade.
The Artemis program — named for the Greek goddess and twin sister of Apollo — was put in motion by President Trump’s 2017 directive. He asked NASA to make plans to go beyond low-Earth orbit with the help of commercial and international partners.
“The United States will lead the return of humans to the moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations,” he said.
This concept image shows a lunar flashlight in a position over the south pole of the moon. NASA / COURTESY PHOTO
Now four years later, the first Artemis launch is set for late this year at Kennedy Space Station. It will send NASA’s Space Launch System, the largest rocket we’ve ever built, along with an unmanned Orion spacecraft on a test run 40,000 miles beyond the moon. That will be followed by an Artemis II mission, sending astronauts into the lunar orbit to test deep-space communications systems.
In 2023, we plan to launch the first two major pieces of The Gateway, an outpost around the moon that will serve as a model for future Mars missions, where astronauts will dock before heading down to the lunar surface.
Artemis III, planned for 2024, will send astronauts to the lunar south pole to establish a base camp.
By 2028, we plan to have established a “sustained multi-national human presence on and around the moon” and will send more astronauts to The Gateway on a regular basis, where they will engage on research trips to the moon.
Dr. Carlos Calle has worked on the electrostatic dust shield for 15 years. He leads a team of researchers striving to perfect the technology that uses dynamic electric fields to remove dust from surfaces. Dr. Calle is hopeful that the EDS will play a major role in NASA’s plans to send humans back to the moon and on to Mars. NASA/KIM SHIFLETT / COURTESY PHOTOS
In creating a new home for humanity on the lunar south pole, explorers will gain the experience and confidence for multi-year missions to Mars.
The core parts for Artemis I are now complete and Boeing has started building the structures for II and III. Yet an already tight time frame has been challenged by the coronavirus pandemic and by funding challenges, said NASA’s Office of Inspector General in April. It projects costs for the Artemis mission through 2025 to reach $86 billion.
While President Biden has expressed his support for Artemis, Congress provided only about 25% of the more than $3 billion that NASA requested in its fiscal 2021 budget.
“Achieving any date close to this ambitious goal — and reaching Mars in the 2030s — will require strong, consistent, sustained leadership from the President, Congress, and NASA, as well as stable and timely funding,” the report from the Inspector General reads.
NASA scientists at Kennedy Space Center gave us a glimpse inside the work they are now engaged in for this new age of space travel, creating equipment and investigating processes that will be needed for the human race to survive on distant planets and in harsh climates.
An electrostatic dust shield has been covered with dust (right) similar to what may be encountered by astronauts exploring the moon or Mars. Scientists are developing the dust shield to help mitigate the problem of dust on equipment, astronauts’ space suits and helmet visors.
On the moon, toxic dust and radiation are key environmental threats to human life. Off-Earth colonies will also need to live off the land, producing as many necessities as possible — such as breathable air, water, fuel and spare parts — on-site instead of bringing it with them, which NASA calls in-situ resource utilization.
“It’s the name of the game when colonizing off-Earth,” said Dr. Kevin Grossman, a Kennedy aerospace technologist who is working on methods of pulling oxygen from lunar regolith, the moon’s dirt.
Kennedy aerospace engineer James T. Smith drew a comparison to early 19th century American explorers Lewis and Clark — quoting his colleague, environmental engineer Jacqueline Quinn:
“She always said that Lewis and Clark would have never made it to the West coast if they were required to bring everything with them,” said Mr. Smith, who is working on instruments designed to study and harvest ice at the lunar south pole. “They are required to learn to live off the land. That’s the crux of in-situ resource utilization. Our hope (is that our work) will allow us to explore farther into the galaxy because we will be able to make fuel and make water, extract resources from the planetary bodies we will visit.”
In 2018, a team of scientists said they found proof of the existence of ice on the moon’s north and south poles. NASA aims to find that supply on the ground and start mining relatively small amounts as early as next year.
Harvesting ice on the moon or other planets may be essential for establishing off-Earth colonies. Besides the need for drinking water and growing crops, breaking down its elements could also be a source of rocket fuel that would help make the moon a way-station for more distant journeys.
To find and study the ice, suites of instruments will be delivered to the moon in several different payloads using NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative.
CLPS is expected to assign contracts for companies to provide the packages being delivered to the moon, not unlike an “Uber to the Moon,” Mr. Smith says. Among the first series of these packages will carry MSOLO, a mass spectrometer modified for outer space and used to analyze gasses that allows scientists to study the chemical makeup of the lunar ground.
Another delivery in late 2023 will include a suite of instruments called PRIME-1 (for Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment), which uses a drill to harvest ice below the moon’s surface that MSolo will analyze; and VIPER, a rover used to hunt for water.
“Not only can we try and quantify how much water is there, loosely, we can quantify how deep it is and figure out where it comes from,” said Mr. Smith, the lead for MSolo.
Thisconcept image shows the Astrobotic Peregrine robotic lander, which will launch on an United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket, and deliver 11 NASA payloads to the moon. NASA/ASTROBOTIC / COURTESY PHOTOS
“And we will a lot of the models saying dispersed throughout the moon,” he said.
For Mr. Smith and his colleagues, one of the biggest challenges besides building the equipment is all the paperwork that is required to develop hardware that will be sent into space. NASA requires all the parts, and the materials they are made of, be tracked to their origins.
“It is an excruciating amount of detail that is required for space flight,” Mr. Smith said.
It comes down to safety.
“If that one little bolt breaks you could ruin the entire mission. Worst case scenario, something breaks free, the whole rocket could be lost. The safety aspect of understanding that nothing will break and you will do no harm to anybody else is extremely important.”
In the dirt
Regolith (moon dirt) is rich with potential applications, including producing oxygen needed for things like astronaut life support and oxidizing fuel, and metals that could be used to build infrastructure.
“The idea is you can take those metals and eventually 3D print metallic objects in any shape you want,” Dr. Grossman says.
Like screws and bolts?
Yes, he says.
“Or, if you wanted to print your own rocket ship back home, you could do that.”
Printing a rocket ship on another planet may be in the semi-distant future, but Dr. Grossman and his team are taking the first steps.
In 2019 he won NASA’s internal Early Career Initiative award, which provided funding to develop a device that can safely extract these valuable materials from regolith while on the moon — the key words there being “safely” and “on the moon.”
As principal investigator of the GaLORE project, which stands for The Gaseous Lunar Oxygen from Regolith Electrolysis, Dr. Grossman is updating a common process to work in a challenging new environment.
He needs to heat regolith to more than 3,000 degrees F until it is a molten liquid. Using electrolysis — passing an electric current through a liquid — he can separate the oxygen atoms from the metal atoms.
The GaLORE team is comparing different methods of heating it, factoring in how safe it is, how well it does the job, and how much the system will weigh for space flight.
Their methods so far have included a solar concentrator, similar to using a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays, and induction heating, using a high-frequency magnetic field to heat a piece of metal.
One of the big challenges for his team is finding a system that is optimal for space travel and on the moon.
“It’s a process that has a lot of different ways that the system cannot work,” he said.
The molten regolith is extremely corrosive and if a melting device broke down or parts wore out on the moon they would need to be replaced on-site — perhaps 3D printed.
As valuable as regolith may be to future space explorers, it also presents one of the greatest hazards to surviving long-term on the moon, said Dr. Charles Buhler, senior research scientist at Kennedy’s Electrostatics and Surface Physics Laboratory and an outer space dust mitigation expert.
Just as in the Apollo era, dust will present a major challenge, potentially clouding astronauts’ suits so that leg joints become inoperable and becoming a hazard for machinery and people alike. It’s far more hazardous than our soft earthen dust.
“The biggest reason is the lack of moisture,” Dr. Buhler said. “On Earth, particles get oxidized. They get worn down. There’s not a lot of sharp edges … The moon is essentially ground-up shards of glass. It’s very toxic. It’s like asbestos. We have to be very careful as to how much exposure the astronauts get.”
Dr. Buhler leads a team of researchers to develop the technology for a variety of applications that require dust removal such as an Electrodynamic Dust Shield, which could be used to dispel dust from camera lenses or space suits with the push of a button.
In April, the core of NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket arrived at Kennedy via barge after a 900-mile journey from Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. It is the final piece of the rocket needed to carry the Orion spacecraft thousands of miles beyond the moon on its first and farthest yet journey into our solar system later this year — and ultimately transport astronauts on subsequent Artemis missions.
The 212-foot-tall core is now being integrated with the rest of the rocket and with the Orion spacecraft inside High Bay 4 at Kennedy’s Vehicle Assembly Launch building by NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems team. The EGS team is also responsible for housing the rocket and spacecraft inside a 380-foot tall mobile launcher, a structure that took four years to build and from which the system will be launched into space.
“It’s a massive high bay, a massive mobile launcher, and obviously a massive rocket,” said Cliff Lanham, senior vehicle operations manager for Exploration Ground Systems. “All of that will come together inside of that high bay.”
EGS is also tasked with making sure Orion has a safe landing on return to Earth.
Engineers building and assembling the rocket, spacecraft, and mobile launcher have a steep learning curve. From its software to the nuts and bolts, it will be an integrated system that takes humans farther into space than ever before, and become a model for spaceships of the future.
“You’re putting the world’s biggest rocket together and that’s the very first time that’s ever occurred,” Mr. Lanham said. “So getting all those pieces and parts together so they support the rocket is a big deal.”
The rocket and spacecraft are being prepared for Artemis I, the initial launch later this year. The cabin structure for the first crewed mission is already being made at a facility in New Orleans, said aerospace engineer Amy Marasia.
As Orion Production Operations Spacecraft Assembly Branch Manager, Ms. Marasia and her team manage assembly of the spacecraft Orion. It will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space.
Its tens of thousands of parts include propulsion, life support, and computer systems.
“All of the subsystems get assembled onto the vehicle here (at Kennedy) and they get tested,” she said. “We go from that initial structure to the fully functional spacecraft. Our group follows that entire build and test.”
It’s a learning process.
“I think as we’re building more vehicles and learning from each one the challenges are becoming less than we had in the beginning,” she said. “The challenge for Artemis II specifically is the addition of the crew systems — so the waste management, the consoles, the seats, the system that provides them an atmosphere within the crew cabin structure. For Artemis III we’re going to be adding a docking system, necessary to dock to The Gateway and go to the moon’s surface.”
Kennedy Space Center is transforming itself for a new age of space travel, too. In the Apollo years, it was a government-only launch complex, but as the space exploration program moved forward it has become an all-purpose port, able to launch a variety of rocket-propelled government and commercial spacecraft into our solar system.
NASA scientists remain inspired by the epic challenges they face, but also a sense of necessity.
“I like the idea of kind of having my fingerprint on something that is going to be part of the expansion of the human species out into the solar system,” Dr. Grossman said. “Our exploration of space is still in its infancy but having even a small hand in that is pretty exciting to me.”
Ms. Marasia said, “For me the opportunity to be a part of a program that goes beyond lower Earth orbit, returning to the moon and building an outpost, is something you’ve only seen in the movies so far. To be contributing to that goal of our space program and hopefully eventually to go beyond that, that is what inspires me.”
But space travel may ultimately be about survival.
“Well, I think it’s important that humans have a foothold somewhere other than Earth, I think that drives everyone at NASA,” Dr. Buhler said. “Ninety-nine percent of every animal that’s ever lived on this planet is extinct. I think we’d like to be the first not to be.” ¦