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. The next-generation spacesuits, to be developed by Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace, will include improved life support and communications systems and allow for additional mobility.

Assuming the first Artemis missions are successful, on subsequent trips more components will be sent to the lunar station and astronauts will be deployed for extended jaunts on 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 becomes more and more complex,” says Koerner.

Although no passengers are traveling on Artemis 1, the capsule will carry three mannequins. The male, dubbed Commander Moonikin Campos through a public naming contest, was used for Orion’s vibration testing. It will fly alongside two female mannequin torsos, made from materials that mimic the bones, soft tissues and organs of an adult woman. All will be equipped with sensors to detect space radiation, as prolonged exposure can harm astronauts’ health. (The European Space Agency, which is collaborating with NASA on the flight, is sending a Shaun the Sheep doll.)

The mission will also deploy 10 shoebox-sized spacecraft called CubeSats, some of which will map the moon’s surface and study its ice pockets, while others will test a space radiation shield or travel to more distant places, such as a near-Earth asteroid.

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

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

However, a project as ambitious as a return to the Moon is not always a political winner. It’s expensive, for one thing. Some critics, like former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, have denounced the astronomical cost of the agency building its own space launch system, at a time when SpaceX is developing the cheaper Super Heavy rocket, as well than the reusable Starship spacecraft.

And programs that span many presidential administrations with differing spatial priorities can be vulnerable to shifting political winds. Sometimes a program will not survive a transition to power in the White House. Former US Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, who launched the Artemis program, favored lunar missions, while former President Barack Obama focused on launching humans to Mars. “Artemis has been through several presidential administrations, so that bodes well. But there are still a lot of unknowns, and it’s a big investment,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, space historian and curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

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