FRANCESCO RODELLA | Tungsteno
NASA wants to lead a new manned space mission to the Moon—and do it soon. This year, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of an astronaut's first walk on the satellite's surface, the U.S. president asked that the trip, originally planned for 2028, be moved up to 2024. Is this an acceptable challenge? What obstacles must be overcome? And in view of the large expenses involved, what benefits would this feat provide us? There are conflicting views in the sector, and the doubts that are already on the table do not only relate to scientific and technological aspects, but also to political issues.
"I think it can be done," says Ryan Watkins, a moon scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, a U.S. non-profit institution. In his opinion, however, the mission will be possible only if two fundamental conditions are met: "obtaining the necessary funding soon" and "speeding up the development of technologies." The first of these two keys depends on the US Congress, and the second on NASA and its international partners (including the European Space Agency and several private companies). For Watkins, it's worth the effort. "There are many unanswered questions about the Moon that can only be answered from its surface, and we haven't been back there for 50 years," he says, referring to the Apollo programme, which took American astronauts to the Moon on six missions between 1969 and 1972. "It's time for us to go back," the researcher says.
NASA presents the program to return human beings to the Moon —named Artemis, like the goddess in Greek mythology, the twin sister of Apollo— as a mission with three main objectives: to investigate its nature in order to "better understand the universe and our planet"; to access resources present on the satellite, such as ice, in order to measure human capacity to create habitable environments outside the Earth; and, above all, to conduct trials in preparation for a manned trip to Mars.
With respect to the unanswered questions about the satellite itself, the U.S. space agency indicates that one of the main ideas is to explore (also with at least one woman) the regions of its South Pole, not yet reached by astronauts. "Bringing samples from there will allow us to answer key scientific questions about its formation and evolution," explains Watkins.
In addition to the technological aspects, the success of the new manned mission to the Moon depends on funding and the political context. Credit: NASA
A question of dollars and seats
But the obstacles to overcome before setting foot on the Moon again are numerous and arduous. Among them is the economic question. In June, Jim Bridenstine, a Republican politician and current administrator of NASA, told CNN that to sustain the costs of the Artemis program, between $20 billion and $30 billion would be needed over five years, or between $4 billion and $6 billion per year. The previous month, Trump had boasted that he was going to ask for $1.6 billion to add to NASA's 2020 budget. The US Congress has not yet approved this additional item. And the space agency, meanwhile, has insisted that more money is needed.
The execution of the programme will also depend on the will of whoever is sitting in the Oval Office in the coming years. By 2024, there may be changes: Trump is at the centre of an investigation in Congress for alleged abuse of power that could lead to his impeachment, and next year he will have to win the presidential election again to get a second term. It has already been seen in the past that a president's space policies do not always correspond to those of his predecessor. Democrat Barack Obama, for example, cancelled a project for a return to the moon promoted by Republican George W. Bush.
Important technological aspects essential for the return to the Moon are still in development, such as the ship that will transport the astronauts, called Orion. Credit: NASA
There are also several fundamental technological aspects to be clarified. Among them, how to travel to the Moon. "At the moment there is no spacecraft, no rocket that allows us to go there," says Rafael Clemente, first director of the Barcelona Science Museum (now CosmoCaixa) and scientific disseminator specialising in space issues. NASA is developing a rocket called Space Launch System for this purpose, but it has not yet been tested in flight in space and it is not yet known exactly when this will be done.
The spacecraft that will transport the astronauts to the satellite, called Orion, is at an advanced stage of development, but its first crew test will not take place before 2022, according to current plans. And an important piece of this puzzle is still missing: a space station that will rotate around the Moon to allow a stable human presence in its orbit and from which the astronauts will disembark onto its surface once they have reached the vicinity of this celestial body from Earth. This orbiting base has not yet been built; what is known is that the European Space Agency will be involved in the project to make it a reality.
Some help that might provide a boost to Trump's accelerated plan, which has aroused some perplexity within NASA itself, could come from private companies. Among them is SpaceX, led by billionaire visionary Elon Musk, who has already tested a rocket designed to transport humans to space and also wants to land an unmanned spacecraft on the Moon before 2022 and with humans "shortly after". Or there is Blue Origin, the company of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who set out to help the U.S. government carry out its ambitious space program and who wants to make a lunar lander available.
Clemente believes that just private participation could be the key to a successful program. "If I had to bet on someone, I would probably bet on private companies," he says, before adding that he sees in the development of space tourism one of the possible motives that is attracting the industrial sector towards lunar missions. Meanwhile, in addition to NASA, China is also working to make it possible for humans to once again land on the satellite. Space races, he recalls, are also a matter of "national prestige."
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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.