We are proud of the accomplishments and science achieved with the exploration of the moon by Apollo crews culminating in 1972 with Apollo 17, 50 years ago. No time since has offered so much promise for crews to return to explore the moon and deep space.
There are signs of hope that that’s about to change, though.
In 2017, the president signed Space Directive 1, which calls for a United States-led return to the moon followed by human missions to Mars. The vice president, as chair of the National Space Council, called for a human return to the moon by 2024 to pave the way to Mars. The intent was to have a sustained presence on the moon by 2028 in preparation for a manned mission to Mars by the mid-2030s.
NASA has embarked on this path with the Artemis Lunar Program. Artemis will land the first woman and the next man on the moon, near its south pole. The landing is scheduled on the Artemis 3 mission no sooner than 2025.
Leading up to that, NASA and partners have developed new hardware and technology and planned robotic reconnaissance, as well as an outline for human lunar geological exploration.
And, of course, they have selected a new team of astronauts for the Artemis mission, including geologist Jessica Watkins, who is currently on a science mission on the International Space Station that will last until September this year.
Lunar In-Situ Resource Utilization
A permanent lunar settlement will require water and propellants in quantities of mass that would be prohibitively expensive to lift from Earth. Supporting the settlement with in-situ resources will be critically necessary.
Water may have been deposited on the moon over geological times by bombardment of water-bearing comets, asteroids and meteoroids, or by protons of the solar wind impacting oxygen-bearing minerals. It is estimated that between 100 million and 1 billion metric tons of lunar water ice exist near each lunar pole. Water ice is unlikely to be present in the form of thick, pure ice deposits, but more likely as interstitial ice and coatings on regolith soil grains. The presence of water has been gleaned by remote sensing with concentrations especially promising in permanently shadowed craters near the moon’s south pole. Data from the lunar explorer neutron detector instrument of NASA’s lunar reconnaissance orbiter detects the presence of hydrogen by sensing neutrons released from the moon’s soils.
Assuming it is possible to mine and extract icy regolith in bulk, the water would be extracted and electrolyzed to hydrogen and oxygen to be used as rocket bi-propellant or other chemical production processes.
In-situ resource utilization will play a vital role in a future human mission to Mars. Like many other operations, ISRU activities will be tested and developed on the moon, building the required knowledge to implement new capabilities that will be necessary to overcome the challenges of a human mission to Mars.
NASA has selected four companies to develop equipment and demonstrate extracting resources from the lunar surface and then selling them back to NASA:
- Lunar Outpost of Golden, Colo.
- Masten Space Systems of Mojave, Calif.
- ispace Europe of Luxembourg
- ispace Japan of Tokyo
Other ice extraction missions are described in what follows.
Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment-1 is a NASA lunar project, expected to launch and land on the moon no sooner than December 2022 as the first robotic mission of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services in support the crewed Artemis Program. The probe will land near the lunar south pole on a ridge not far from Shackleton crater, a location expected to be rich in subsurface ice deposits.
It will be the first on-site resource utilization demonstration on the moon, robotically drilling to analyze for ice from below the surface. Two components make up PRIME-1 on the Nova-C IM-2 commercial lunar lander:
The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain, or “TRIDENT,” will drill up to three feet deep, extracting lunar soil regolith up to the surface. A mass spectrometer will analyze the drill cuttings for water and other chemical compounds from multiple depths.
NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or “VIPER,” is a planned golf-cart sized, robotic lunar rover that will prospect for natural lunar resources. The focus will be on water ice within a permanently shadowed region on the western edge of Nobile crater near the lunar south pole. The VIPER mission is also part of CLPS. Launch is expected no earlier than November 2023. The mission contract was awarded to Astrobotic Technology with instrumentation and drill package, TRIDENT, provided by Honeybee Robotics.
The neutron spectrometer system will detect subsurface water from a distance, then VIPER will stop at that location and use the three-foot-long TRIDENT drill to obtain samples to be analyzed for ice by two onboard spectrometers.
The VIPER rover is planned to explore across several kilometers, collecting data on different kinds of soil environments in complete darkness, partial and constant sunlight. Once it enters a permanently shadowed site, it will operate on battery power and will not be able to recharge with its solar array until it returns to a sunlit area. Its mission operation is planned for 100 days.
A thorough investigation of potential lunar and solar system resources is given in AAPG Memoir 101: “Energy Resources for Human Settlement in the Solar System and Earth’s Future in Space.” Also see “Mars Resources for Human Settlement” in the October 2020 issue of the EXPLORER.
As we look forward to the human settlement of Mars, we will depend on ISRU for support. A promising settlement site, the Arcadia Planitia area of Mars shows many surface bulges from widespread subsurface ice pingos similar to permafrost areas on Earth. Nearby areas show near-surface glacial ice flows. The presence of ice is corroborated by Mars Odyssey probe’s gamma ray spectrometer. The pervasive shallow ice in Arcadia Planitia qualifies this mid-latitude area as a proposed site for a base for sustained human presence using ISRU.
The Artemis Program Progresses
For launch hardware, the Artemis Program employs traditional contract partners such as Aerojet Rocketdyne, Northrup Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, international partners like the European Space Agency and other industry partners, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin.
SpaceX has been sending crews to the ISS on Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules since November 2020. Dragon Crew 4 arrived at ISS on April 27, 2022, carrying Artemis astronaut geologist Jessica Watkins.
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket will carry the Artemis VIPER lunar rover to the moon no earlier than November 2023. The Falcon boosters and Dragon capsules are fully reusable. Falcon boosters have successfully landed 123 times. Thirty boosters have flown multiple missions, with a record of 12 missions by the same booster.
The space launch system is an American, super heavy-lift, expendable launch vehicle. It has been under development by NASA since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. SLS is designed to be the workhorse for Artemis human missions to the moon and do heavy lifting to build settlement infrastructure. Eventually, settlements will include habitats, nuclear power systems and a new generation of lunar rover for human exploration.
The first uncrewed launch, Artemis I, is scheduled for no earlier than August 2022, pending the success of a wet dress rehearsal test, now expected in July. Artemis I will send the Orion module to orbit the moon and test the capsule reentry heatshield on its return to Earth. Artemis II, is expected to follow in 2025, with a crew orbiting the moon
The SLS carries the Orion crew capsule with a crew of four, but it does not include a lunar lander. Artemis III is planned for 2025 to deliver an Orion crew to lunar orbit to transfer to a landing system to land near the moon’s south pole. NASA has chosen the SpaceX Starship to be the human landing system for the first and second Artemis lunar landings. The Starship and its Super Heavy booster will be reusable. Other human landing systems are under development by Blue Origin and Dynetics to add diversity to the Artemis program.
SpaceX is rapidly developing its huge Starship at its Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas. Initially, Starship prototypes were launched without the Super Heavy booster to test aerodynamics and landing capability. There were six launches from August 2020 to May 2021 with some failures and valuable learnings at each attempt. Testing culminated in a successful soft landing of Starship SN15. Starship SN24 and Booster BN7 are ready to be static-fire tested and stacked for an orbital launch test as soon as July 2022 if full FAA approval is granted. Both will be fated to soft ocean landings in this initial test flight. Soft landing returns to Boca Chica on future orbital flights will demonstrate reusability.
On June 15, 2022, an FAA environmental assessment provisionally cleared the way for orbital test flights of Starship. However, due to restrictions, the long-term future of its Boca Chica, Texas Starbase is in doubt and might be limited to development and testing. SpaceX is rapidly developing a Starship launch complex at the historic Kennedy Space Center Pad 39A, next to its Falcon launch tower. This will likely be the focal point for Starship operations for the longterm, including missions to the moon and to Mars.
Starship/Super Heavy will ultimately be capable of sending payloads of 150 metric tons to deep space. Variants will carry crew, cargo or propellant. Producing 17 million pounds of thrust, the 394-foot-tall Starship/Super Heavy will be the most powerful rocket ever flown when it finally lifts off from Boca Chica.
An orbiting Lunar Gateway system is also under development for Artemis. The Gateway will have a habitation module, airlock and a power and propulsion element. The Lunar Gateway will be a small, lunar orbiting space station to provide a staging base for lunar crews to transfer from Orion to an HLS to land on the moon. The Orion capsule returns crews back to Earth with the capability for atmospheric entry from lunar space at 25,000 miles per hour.
Artemis Astronaut Team
In December 2020, NASA selected 18 astronauts, nine men and nine women, from its roster to form the Artemis Team for the next human missions to explore the moon. Eight have spaceflight experience. Brief NASA Bios of them follow. Readers can quickly glean the varied paths of STEM education that qualified this next generation of lunar explorers.
Joseph Acaba was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2004. He has spent 306 days in space and performed three spacewalks. The Anaheim, Calif., native holds a bachelor’s degree in geology, as well as masters’ in geology and education. Before NASA, he taught high school science and middle school math and science.
Christina Hammock Koch was selected as an astronaut in 2013 and holds the record for longest single spaceflight by a woman, with 328 days in space and six spacewalks. She grew up in Jacksonville, N.C., and received bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and physics, and a master’s in electrical engineering.
Kjell Lindgren was chosen as an astronaut in 2009. He spent 141 days in space and performed two spacewalks. Born in Taipei, Taiwan, he holds a bachelor’s in biology, a master’s in cardiovascular physiology and is a doctor in medicine. He is currently on ISS as a member of Dragon Crew 4.
Anne McClain, from Spokane, Wash., joined the astronaut corps in 2013. She has spent 204 days in space and conducted two spacewalks. The U.S. Army lieutenant colonel is a senior Army aviator and graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School as a helicopter test pilot. She holds a bachelor’s in mechanical/aeronautical engineering and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering and international relations.
Jessica Meir was chosen as an astronaut in 2013. She has spent 205 days in space and performed three spacewalks. A native of Caribou, Maine, she earned a bachelor’s in biology, a master’s in space studies and a doctorate in marine biology.
Kate Rubins was chosen as an astronaut in 2009 has spent two missions aboard the ISS. She was raised in Napa, Calif., and holds a bachelor’s in molecular biology and a doctorate in cancer biology. She was the first person to sequence DNA in space and has performed two spacewalks.
Scott Tingle came to NASA to join the 2009 astronaut class. The U.S. Navy captain has spent 168 days in space and performed one spacewalk. He considers Randolph, Mass., his hometown and holds a bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering.
Jessica Watkins joined the astronaut corps in 2017. She is currently on ISS as a member of Dragon Crew 4. The Lafayette, Colo., native earned a bachelor’s in geological and environmental sciences and a doctorate in geology. Before becoming an astronaut, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology where she served as a member of the science team for the Mars Science Laboratory for the Curiosity rover.
“It was cool to wake up in the morning and see the new images that had come down from Mars that only a few other people had seen, and then make decisions about where you want to send the rover next,” Watkins said, as reported in the May 2020 EXPLORER.
Watkins trained with Apollo 17 astronaut geologist Harrison Schmitt in October 2019 at the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility at NASA Johnson Space Center. They examined actual Apollo 17 lunar samples. Given that NASA has stated that the first Artemis lunar landing will carry the first woman to the moon and the emphasis is on lunar field geology, Watkins stands a good chance of being that first woman and second geologist to walk on the moon after Schmitt did in 1972.
SLS and Starship Prepare for Uncrewed Maiden Launches in 2022
Indeed, it is an exciting time in the history of human space flight. All eyes will be on the NASA Space Launch System and SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy booster for uncrewed maiden launches no earlier than July or August 2022. Both vehicles are more powerful than the Apollo Saturn V rocket that last took a crew to the moon in 1972 with Apollo 17 and astrogeologist Harrison Schmitt.
On March 17, NASA’s first SLS moon rocket, the Artemis I, emerged from the same Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as the Apollo Saturn V moon rockets. After propellant load test failures due to a faulty valve, SLS rolled back to the VAB and was repaired. Early June 6, SLS rolled back out to its launchpad for another attempt for a wet dress rehearsal to fully load it with super-cold propellant.
Meanwhile Elon Musk tweeted on June 15, “Starship will be ready to fly next month. I was in the high bay and mega bay late last night (at Boca Chica) reviewing progress.”
Musk continued that SpaceX “will have a second Starship stack ready to fly in August” and then will launch flights on a monthly basis from then on.
The moon and Mars are in our sights for human exploration.