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Returning to the Moon

Man first went to the moon in 1969, and the Apollo lunar flights ended way back in 1972. Over the last 48 years, there has been little interest in going back to the moon, with money and politics mostly responsible for the lack of ambition. All that is about to change, however, with the NASA Artemis Plan focused on putting men and women back on the moon in 2024. This time around could be very different, as key commercial and international partnerships define the scope and scale of the next phase of space exploration.

According to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, the huge time gap in lunar exploration is mostly down to politics and money: “If it wasn’t for the political risk, we would be on the moon right now. In fact, we would probably be on Mars. It was the political risks that prevented it from happening... The program took too long and it costs too much money.” While this is a sad situation in many ways, President Trump recently requested an additional $US1.6 billion to fund an ongoing project “largely focused on a lunar lander that at this point doesn’t exist.”

While most people only remember the first lunar landing, NASA landed a total of 12 people on the moon during a busy three year period. In what is possibly NASA’s greatest period, astronauts collected rocks, took photos, and performed experiments multiple times before returning safely home. Despite the success of these landings, the Apollo program didn’t establish a lasting human presence on the moon. During this phase, NASA is basically starting from scratch while benefiting from renewed political willingness and the advantages of 21st century technology. 

According to Mr Bridenstine, “With bipartisan support from Congress, our 21st century push to the Moon is well within America’s reach. As we’ve solidified more of our exploration plans in recent months, we’ve continued to refine our budget and architecture. We’re going back to the Moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits, and inspiration for a new a generation of explorers. As we build up a sustainable presence, we’re also building momentum toward those first human steps on the Red Planet.”

Planning and development is well underway, with the first lunar mission on track for 2021. Known as Artemis I, the initial phase of the lunar plan will launch without astronauts. Artemis II will launch a couple of years later in 2023, this time complete with human crew. In the period between the two phases, NASA will use commercial delivery services to send scientific equipment and technology to the Moon twice per year. NASA wants to commercialise low-Earth orbit, as the United States looks to lead a coalition of nations and industry partners in a new relationship with space.

NASA's commercial resupply model will enable American companies to resupply the International Space Station. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will return spaceflight launches to American soil, with the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion spacecraft, and Gateway lunar command module all set to play a role in the lunar return. Together with international and commercial partners, NASA will keep the Gateway lunar command module in orbit around the Moon and use it as a staging point for lunar surface missions. Three commercial companies are already working on human-rated lunar landers, with NASA focusing on a sustainable and reusable architecture that could also be used for Mars missions and beyond.