Americans watched their country’s first moonwalk from small, fuzzy black-and-white television sets. For the generations that followed, it might come as a surprise that, even with all of the modern advancements in technology, the United States lost its lunar-landing capability half a century ago.
But as of Nov.16, NASA is back in the moon business. When the Space Launch System, NASA’s new 322-foot megarocket, tore through the sky with the inaugural test flight of the Orion spacecraft, it signified the start of something new — a quest to take humankind multiplanetary. Though no one is inside Orion for the Artemis I mission, a successful empty test flight will clear the way for astronauts aboard the spaceship next time, with a sequel mission slated for as early as 2024.
With the new hardware, NASA wants to one day build a lunar-orbiting base to ferry astronauts back-and-forth to a moon camp, see the first woman and person of color walk on the lunar surface, and spend long stretches there conducting research and gathering samples. All the while, the agency will keep one eye fixed on the red planet some 140 million miles in the distance.
“The commitment to go to the moon should be seen in the context of going to Mars,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, told Mashable. “That is perhaps one of the hardest things we’ll have ever done as humans, in terms of technology, in terms of objectives. It’s harder than going to the moon, it’s harder than the Apollo program. And the way we’re doing it is very different. We’re doing it as a world, not as a country.”
That ambitious vision, a future in which people can travel to and survive on Mars, means NASA needs practice and can’t do it single-handedly. By the time the agency is ready to send the first astronauts to the moon in a few years, for example, it will have spent about $93 billion on the project, according to a federal watchdog. To become multiplanetary requires a host of other spacefaring nations and commercial partners to develop the lunar economy necessary to support an unprecedented space endeavor.
“It’s harder than the Apollo program. And the way we’re doing it is very different. We’re doing it as a world, not as a country.”
Regardless of its scientific merits, America didn’t always have the will to keep exploring the moon. While most scientists have continued to value it as a resource for understanding the history of the solar system through its undisturbed geology, politicians have had different perspectives. President Barack Obama gave a speech just 12 years ago suggesting NASA should skip it and focus on flying straight to Mars and other new places, like asteroids.
“I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before,” Obama said.
Why the renewed interest after all these decades?
The discovery of water on the moon — once thought of as an arid wasteland — was the game changer. Suddenly, Earth’s orbiting satellite presented a lot more scientific and money-making possibilities.
Credit: NASA illustration
Precious moon water
Water frozen in dark craters at the moon’s poles could be mined for drinking water. It could also be split apart into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for rocket fuel. Some speculate the fuel would not only be used for traditional spacecraft, but perhaps thousands of satellites that companies are putting into space for various purposes.
Avoiding the exorbitant costs of toting heavy fuel on rockets, which require extreme amounts of propulsion to break free of Earth’s gravity, could save a fortune. That means the moon could become something of a space gas station.
Mining for lunar water alone could be a $206 billion industry over the next 30 years, according to Watts, Griffis, and McOuat, a geological and mining consulting firm.
The same rationale has been applied to metals found on the moon. Iron, titanium, aluminum, silicon, calcium, and magnesium, among others, would likely be too expensive to lug in large quantities from Earth, but access to those materials in space could help astronauts build tools and structures.
“This is what we need to prove,” Brad Jolliff, director of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, told Mashable. “The business case is that it’s actually less expensive to develop the resources on the moon as opposed to launching them from Earth.”
NASA wants to lead the way. It has already announced 13 possible regions in the moon’s South Pole that astronauts might explore during Artemis III and later missions. They’re places geologists suspect astronauts will strike ice on the rims of shadowy craters. These proposed sites are far from the historic Apollo landing sites near the moon’s equator.
Credit: NASA illustration
NASA seeks collaboration
The U.S. space agency has been getting buy-in on its plans from other nations through the Artemis Accords, an international agreement establishing standards for safe and collaborative space exploration. But NASA has competition. China has been building a robust military-run space program. It has landed several robotic missions on the moon and recently completed its own space station, Tiangong.
Meanwhile others, such as India and an Israeli group, have tried unsuccessfully to land on the moon in the past few years. Both missions crashed on the lunar surface. Ispace, a Japanese outfit using a SpaceX rocket, is scheduled to launch in November, with plans to land on the lunar surface early next year.
“Up until recently, you didn’t really hear NASA talking about a ‘space race,’ but I did indeed hear Administrator Bill Nelson say, ‘We are in a race,'” Jolliff said. “He as much as came right out and said it.”
For NASA, returning to the moon through Artemis is not about repeating Apollo. This time, rather than sending astronauts to the surface for short, two to three-day stints, they want to go for days and weeks at a time to learn how to actually live there. Scientists say the moon will become a crucial testbed for sustaining life away from Earth, and preparing humans for yearslong voyages to destinations farther into the cosmos.
The challenges are vast: overcoming deep-space radiation, extreme temperatures, no air, and a lack of food.
The moon’s business case
That’s why Scott Amyx, managing partner of Astor Perkins, a space-investing venture capital fund, calls the moon “the eighth continent,” ripe for industrialization.
“It’s more than a science experiment,” Amyx told Mashable, thinking aspirationally about missions even beyond Mars well into the future. “It is a stepping stone. The moon represents automation of lots of different resources and capabilities that will be a launch pad for us to pursue.”
“It’s more than a science experiment. It is a stepping stone.”
Soon, he believes, every major manufacturing company will want to participate in the lunar-based economy, which may present financial opportunities in mining, energy, real estate development, transportation, telecommunications, computing power and data storage, and tourism.
A few companies have already announced ambitious plans to build space hotels and mixed-use space stations with room to host hundreds of guests. Think of the miles of hydroponic vertical farming needed to feed those people, Amyx said. He sees trillions of dollars’ worth of new ventures.
“Many legacy family offices made their money during the Gold Rush not from gold, but by having trade posts,” he said. “They were the first general store that provided goods and sold things to the miners. They came from all over, and that’s how they became wealthy … That’s really where things are.”
But some criticism of expensive human space exploration, which has existed since NASA’s Apollo days, still follows the institution. Today, skeptics wonder why the agency bothers slingshotting people into space when robots, which don’t require air, water, or companionship, could do the exploring.
It’s an argument that Zurbuchen, one of the agency’s top communicators, has a difficult time parsing. From his point of view, the benefits of sending astronauts, who can think on their feet, use deductive reasoning to make decisions, and have situational awareness, far exceed what machines are capable of doing.
“It’s kind of funny because that’s not how we do science on Earth,” he said. “A volcano is about to blow up, you see the geologists climbing up the volcano walls there. It’s dangerous. They go to the Antarctic, why? Why can’t you send a robot? You can, but you’ll learn so much more with a human.”