After all, how long will it take humans to get back to the moon?

In December 2022, NASA took a big step forward in its mission to start returning humans to the Moon: Artemis 1 was launched, 50 years after the last human was on our satellite.

The most optimistic forecasts believe that we will set foot on the moon again in 2025, but it could be much later.

What are you doing

  • One of the greatest achievements in NASA history was walking 12 men on the surface of the Moon between 1969 and 1972; no other country has achieved this to date.
  • In the midst of the space race against Russia, the astronauts planted flags, took pictures, did some experiments and went home.
  • The Artemis program is more ambitious: it wants to establish a constant presence on our satellite.
  • A moon base and space station could be a stepping stone to go further, particularly on Mars.
  • The challenge now is to advance in experimenting with technologies (and to create others that don’t even exist) that will allow our permanent presence on the Moon.

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt with lunar module and rover in background

Image: UniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images

Next steps

The Artemis program calendar has undergone several changes and postponements; see how it looks now:

Artemis 2 (2024): The journey of the Orion capsule must be repeated with four astronauts on board. They will make a ten-day flyby, circling the far side of the Moon, about 400,000 kilometers from Earth, the farthest into deep space a human has ever been. But they won’t land.

Artemis 3 (2025): The goal is to “alunissar” (land on the Moon) and land the crew at the South Pole, a different and more challenging place than those visited during the Apollo program. No person, not even a robotic mission, has ever landed there.

It is expected to find deposits of water ice that can be used to provide human presence and produce fuel. But Orion doesn’t have the propulsion to descend and ascend on its own. It will take a human landing system (HLS): a spacecraft to carry astronauts between orbit of the Moon, where the capsule will be, and the surface. For now, NASA has opted for Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starship, which is still under development.

Artemis 3.5 (2027): The documents reveal that NASA may add an intermediate mission, so there won’t be a huge gap in the schedule. This would cost an additional US$5 billion (R$25 billion) and delay subsequent stages and technologies.

Future (until 2034): If successful and funded, the next step in the Artemis program is to install the “Lunar Gateway,” which would orbit our satellite and serve as a mission backstop (a miniature space station).

In collaboration with other agencies and private companies, such as SpaceX, NASA also intends to establish a “camp” – a permanent base on lunar soil – with a “habitable mobility platform” for trips of up to 45 days.

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Artist’s impression shows the Orion capsule arriving at the Lunar Gateway, with Earth in the background

Image: NASA

The goal is for all of this facility and expertise to also enable manned trips to Mars, originally planned for 2030. “It’s an aggressive program,” said Jim Bridenstine, a former NASA administrator. It will most likely take at least 20 years for that to happen.

Why hasn’t anyone set foot on the moon so far?

  • Getting to the moon is very expensive. According to NASA estimates, this return is expected to cost about 160 billion dollars, over a 13-year period, slightly more than what it cost Apolloin updated values.
  • Manned missions require a lot of testing to ensure the safety of the crews.
  • It is a challenge to get government support.

NASA’s 2022 budget was $24 billion, and the Joe Biden administration wants to increase that figure to $26 billion this year.

That sounds like a lot, but it’s not: it accounts for only about 0.4% of the US federal budget. For comparison, the US military is projected to receive $858 billion in 2023.

It seems even less if we consider the large simultaneous space projects: the James Webb Space Telescope, the SLS (Space Launch System) rocket, planetary defense missions against asteroids (such as Dart).

Thus, meeting the Artemis program in the coming years depends on more money and political good will, but we don’t know who will be the president and what his priorities will be in 2025 (or after).

Specific challenges of the moon

The Moon is our best laboratory if we want to reach other hostile worlds like Mars.

However, the environment is very hostile to humans and their equipment. Boulders, for example, are safety hazards for landings.

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Gene Cernan pilots the rover during Apollo 17; The rough and “dusty” terrain is a challenge for the equipment

Image: NASA

A big concern is regolith, the so-called moon dust. Billions of years of meteoroid impacts have left the Moon covered in a thick layer of very fine, “sharp” dust, such as talc.

Due to its interaction with the solar wind, it becomes electrostatically charged, becoming very abrasive and sticky. And it can damage spacesuits, vehicles and systems very quickly. In the long run, it can even be harmful to our respiratory system.

Another problem is sunlight. Unlike the Earth, the Moon has a minimal inclination angle and has no protective atmosphere. That is, for half of the month, it is directly exposed to the fervent rays of the sun; in the other he lies in the coldest darkness.

NASA is developing a fission-fueled power system (nuclear reactor) that could provide electricity to the astronaut base during lunar night weeks and sun and dust resistant suits and vehicles.

We’ve been there before, why go back now?

The Moon has once again become a target in the new era of space exploration. This is because it has a lot of water stored in the form of ice, inside its craters and at the poles.

It is thanks to this “treasure” that Artemis’ goals go further:

  • The new missions will focus on the lunar South Pole, where there are 13 possible landing sites. This place, where the sun barely shines, is estimated to contain 600 billion kilograms of ice.
  • Water is the key to the goal of having a permanent presence on our satellite.
  • Aquatic reserves would also allow for the production of fuel (hydrogen and oxygen) for spacecraft. Therefore, it could allow missions of longer duration or further away, without depending on Earth.

Bill Nelson, the current administrator of NASA, said: “This time we go back to the moon to learn, live, work, invent, create… and then go out into the cosmos to explore more.”

“Selfie” from the Orion capsule, from the Artemis 1 mission, with the Moon

Image: Disclosure/NASA

Billionaires accelerate this goal

In recent years, the boom of private space exploration companies, led by billionaires like Elon Musk (SpaceX) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin), has brought innovation and excitement to the sector.

Agencies from other countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, India, Israel and Europe (ESA) have also entered this new race, where there is a lot of cooperation: Apollo taught us that space exploration as a competition between countries is not sustainable.

This generates motivation to do things differently, reduce costs and go further. We will need all of this to live on the moon, go to Mars and beyond.

This is no longer a question of “if” but rather a question of “when” it will happen.

#long #humans #moon

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