On Thursday, NASA published the outline for its Artemis program, which plans to send the next man and first woman to the lunar surface by the year 2024. The last time NASA sent humans to the Moon was in 1972, during the Apollo lunar mission.
What is the Artemis program?
With the Artemis program, NASA wishes to demonstrate new technologies, capabilities and business approaches that will ultimately be needed for the future exploration of Mars.
The program is divided into three parts, the first called Artemis I is most likely to be launched next year and involves an uncrewed flight to test the SLS and Orion spacecraft. Artemis II will be the first crewed flight test and is targetted for 2023. Artemis III will land astronauts on the Moon’s South Pole in 2024.
What does it take to go to the moon?
For NASA, going to the moon involves various elements – such as the exploration ground systems (the structures on the ground that are required to support the launch), the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion (the spacecraft for lunar missions), Gateway (the lunar outpost around the Moon), lunar landers (modern human landing systems) and the Artemis generation spacesuits – are all ready.
NASA’s new rocket called SLS will send astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft a quarter of a million miles away from Earth to the lunar orbit.
Once the astronauts dock Orion at the Gateway — which is a small spaceship in orbit around the moon — they will be able to live and work around the Moon, and from the spaceship, will take expeditions to the surface of the Moon.
In June, NASA finalised a contract worth $187 million with the Orbital Science Corporation of Dulles, Virginia, which will be responsible for the design and logistics.
The astronauts going for the Artemis program will wear newly designed spacesuits, called Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU. These spacesuits feature advanced mobility and communications and interchangeable parts that can be configured for spacewalks in microgravity or on a planetary surface.
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NASA and the moon
The US began trying to put people in space as early as 1961. Eight years later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step on the Moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission. While climbing down the ladder towards the surface of the Moon he famously proclaimed, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Armstrong along with Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin walked around the moon for over three hours, doing experiments and picking up bits and pieces of Moondust and rocks. They left a US flag on the Moon along with a sign that said, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon July 1969, AD. We came in peace for all mankind.”
Apart from the purpose of space exploration itself, NASA’s endeavour to send Americans to the Moon again is to demonstrate American leadership in space and to establish a strategic presence on the Moon, while expanding the US global economic impact.
“When they land, our American astronauts will step foot where no human has ever been before: the Moon’s South Pole,” says NASA.
In 1959, the Soviet Union’s uncrewed Luna 1 and 2 became the first rover to visit the Moon. Since then, seven nations have followed suit. Before the US sent the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon, it sent three classes of robotic missions between 1961 and 1968. After July 1969, 12 American astronauts walked on the surface of the Moon until 1972. Together, the Apollo astronauts brought back over 382 kg of lunar rock and soil back to Earth for study.
Then in the 1990s, the US resumed lunar exploration with robotic missions Clementine and Lunar Prospector. In 2009, it began a new series of robotic lunar missions with the launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS).
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In 2011, NASA began the ARTEMIS (Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence, and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun) mission using a pair of repurposed spacecraft, and in 2012, the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft studied the Moon’s gravity.
Apart from the US, the European Space Agency, Japan, China, and India have sent missions to explore the Moon. China landed two rovers on the surface, which includes the first-ever landing on the Moon’s far side in 2019. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) recently announced India’s third lunar mission Chandrayaan-3, which will comprise a lander and a rover.