Why NASA Wants to Return to the Moon

These include the development of Gateway robotics and crew habitat modules, as well as a lunar rover, all of which could be precursors to future technologies on Mars. Next-generation spacesuits, to be developed by Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace, will include enhanced life support and communications systems, and allow for additional mobility.

Assuming the early Artemis missions are successful, later voyages will send more components to the lunar station and deploy astronauts on extended trips to the lunar soil, possibly for weeks at a time. “As we carry out these missions, they become more and more complex. And so the infrastructure to support them is becoming increasingly complex,” says Koerner.

Although no passengers will be traveling on Artemis 1, the capsule will carry three mannequins. The male, dubbed Commander Moonikin Campos thanks to a public naming contest, was used for Orion vibration tests. He will fly alongside two female mannequin torsos made from materials that mimic the bones, soft tissue and organs of an adult female. All of them will be equipped with sensors to detect space radiation, since prolonged exposure can endanger the health of astronauts. (The European Space Agency, which is partnering with NASA on the flight, is sending a Shaun the Sheep puppet.)

The mission will also deploy 10 shoebox-sized spacecraft called CubeSats, some of which will map the lunar surface and study its ice pockets, while others will test a space radiation shield or venture to more distant locations like a near-Earth asteroid.

The Artemis project will also serve as a testbed for technologies being developed through public-private partnerships. NASA has already worked with Terran Orbital and Rocket Lab to launch a small spacecraft called the Capstone, which is currently exploring the Lunar Gateway’s future orbit. Maxar Technologies of Westminster, Colorado will provide Gateway’s power and propulsion, while Northrop Grumman of Dulles, Virginia is working on the HALO module, a small area where the first Gateway astronauts will live and research. SpaceX will launch both on a Falcon Heavy rocket in late 2024.

Large programs also create opportunities for global diplomacy and inter-space agency relationships. NASA is collaborating with many international partners on Artemis, with the European Space Agency providing Orion’s service module on Artemis 1 and collaborating on Gateways I-HAB. The Japanese space agency is developing a cargo delivery spacecraft for Gateway and is exploring the concept of a pressurized lunar rover in which astronauts could remove their bulky spacesuits. The Canadian Space Agency is designing a robotic arm for the station. A total of 21 countries have also signed up to the Artemis Accords, the US government’s attempt to establish best practices for future international exploration of the moon.

But a project as ambitious as going back to the moon is not always a political winner. For one, it’s expensive. Some critics, like former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, have cited the skyrocketing cost of building the agency’s own space launch system — at a time when SpaceX is developing the less-expensive Super Heavy rocket alongside the reusable Starship spacecraft.

And programs that span many presidential administrations with different space priorities can be vulnerable to shifting political winds. Sometimes a program doesn’t survive a change of power in the White House. Former US Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump – who initiated the Artemis program – favored lunar missions, while former President Barack Obama focused on taking humans to Mars. “Artemis has spanned multiple presidential administrations, which bodes well. But there are still many unknowns, and it’s a big investment,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, space historian and curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

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