Commentary: NASA’s Artemis launch - here’s why humans are going back to the moon
Some may consider space exploration a waste of money. But about 50 years after humans were last on the moon with the Apollo programme, there are many reasons to go back, says this professor.
PERTH: The launch of NASA's long-awaited Artemis 1 test-flight around the moon was called off on Monday (Aug 29) after an engine snag, delaying the debut of its next-generation rocketship by at least four days.
NASA did not give a new launch date but said its first available backup launch opportunity was set for Sep 2. The subsequent launch opportunity is Sep 5.
Despite the setback, the milestone mission is set to usher in a new era of human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit, and the first step in getting humans back to the moon.
The 42-day uncrewed mission will test the capabilities of the new heavy lift Space Launch System rocket, as well as the space readiness and safety of the Orion spacecraft. Orion is designed to send humans further into space than ever before.
In addition, Orion will launch 10 small satellites called CubeSats for both scientific and commercial purposes.
These will be used to investigate different areas of the moon, look at sustainability in the use of spacecraft, and even send one spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid. All these CubeSats have been built by industry (small and large) and scientific groups in the effort to expand space exploration.
A FITTING NAME AFTER APOLLO MISSIONS
A lunar deity, Artemis is the Greek goddess of the hunt, and Apollo’s twin sister. It is a fitting name for the programme that will send the first woman and first person of colour to the moon by 2030.
The Artemis programme will build capacity in steps, similar to how the Apollo programme worked in the 1960s. Each mission will build on the knowledge gained from the previous one to test equipment and instruments under controlled conditions, until finally, all is ready for a crewed landing on the moon.
With the Artemis programme, Earth as a global community has the opportunity to participate and push back the frontiers of human knowledge and innovation.
Humans were last on the moon nearly 50 years ago, when the Apollo 17 astronauts spent 12 days roving and exploring an area known as the Taurus-Littrow Valley.
Since that time, most human exploration of space has been from the International Space Station, which orbits about 400km above the surface of Earth. For comparison, the moon is around 950 times further (around 385,000km) away, representing a much more significant challenge.
As a global community, we have already learned much from using robotic missions to the moon and other planets in our solar system. The moon has been imaged at a resolution of roughly 5m per pixel, therefore we can see and pick safer landing areas in heavily cratered areas like the south polar regions.
India's Chandrayaan-1 mission discovered water ice, and China’s Chang'e 5 mission recently brought samples back to Earth that come from the youngest known area of the moon. We will apply this information to our next steps.
21ST CENTURY “SPACE RACE” IS DIFFERENT
The 20th century “space race” that drove humans to the moon in the 1960s and 70s was fuelled by competition between the two global superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, with the rest of the planet experiencing the excitement of visiting a world other than Earth.
Chinese officials recently announced an International Lunar Research Station jointly planned with Russia, a project that includes a new crew launch vehicle and the heavy lift rocket Long March 9, but details on this programme are relatively scant for now.
While NASA leads the charge this time around, the Artemis programme will be an international effort. It will take lessons from the success of the International Space Station, which was built by five countries and has been used by astronauts from 20 countries.
For this first Artemis mission, several European countries are involved in both the Space Launch System and Orion. More will contribute to building and operating a base and rovers on the moon in the future. Global collaboration is at the forefront of this effort.
BENEFIT OF SPACE EXPLORATION FOR ALL
Space exploration leads to new scientific discoveries, significant economic benefits and inspiration for people to reach farther and higher. It is not just financial expenditure with no return – it earns back in spades and sometimes in ways we cannot predict.
The invention of cordless tools and Velcro are often associated with NASA and space exploration; in reality, those were invented before the Apollo programme (NASA did, however, make good use of them). Although those were not invented because of space exploration, there are plenty of things that have been – from memory foam to suits for race car drivers, to cancer-sniffing instruments.
A landing on the moon also provided a unique view of Earth that showed our big blue marble in space. We are a connected community.
We, the humans of this planet, need to go back to the moon for many reasons, but the most important one is the challenge – to extend ourselves to innovate and progress.
The effort put into this will lead to new ways to look at and solve problems not only for living and working in space, but for improving how we live and work on Earth.
Gretchen Benedix is an astro-geologist and professor at Curtin University. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.