NASA’s Plan For Sustained Lunar Exploration

The Apollo program proved that humans could land on the Moon and do useful work, but due to logistical and technical limitations, individual missions were kept short. For the $28 billion ($283 billion adjusted) spent on the entire program, astronauts only clocked in around 16 days total on the lunar surface. For comparison, the International Space Station has cost an estimated $150 billion to build, and has remained continuously occupied since November 2000. Apollo was an incredible technical achievement, but not a particularly cost-effective way to explore our nearest celestial neighbor.

Leveraging lessons learned from the Apollo program, modern technology, and cooperation with international and commercial partners, NASA has recently published their plans to establish a sustained presence on the Moon within the next decade. The Artemis program, named for the twin sister of Apollo, won’t just be a series of one-off missions. Fully realized, it would consist not only of a permanent outpost where astronauts will work and live on the surface of the Moon for months at a time, but a space station in lunar orbit that provides logistical support and offers a proving ground for the deep-space technologies that will eventually be required for a human mission to Mars.

It’s an ambitious program on a short timeline, but NASA believes it reflects the incredible technological strides that have been made since humans last left the relative safety of low Earth orbit. Operating the International Space Station for 20 years has given the countries involved practical experience in assembling and maintaining a large orbital complex, and decades of robotic missions have honed the technology required for precision powered landings. By combining all of the knowledge gained since the end of Apollo, the Artemis program hopes to finally establish a continuous human presence on and around the Moon.

Orbital Assembly

NASA says that a space station in orbit around the Moon will be an invaluable asset as the agency pushes ahead towards the large-scale exploration and development of the lunar surface. This station, which the agency calls “Gateway”, would allow for more elaborate missions by providing a rallying point for crews and their spacecraft. For example, a larger and more capable lander than those used during the Apollo missions could be assembled and checked out at Gateway ahead of the arrival of its assigned crew. After returning from the surface, the lander could potentially be refurbished and refueled at the station to be used on another mission instead of being discarded.

Beyond supporting lunar activities, NASA says that Gateway could be used as a laboratory for deep space research in the same way that the ISS is for low Earth orbit. Its location would be advantageous for heliophysics studies and Earth observation, and work is already underway on several scientific modules that could be mounted to the outside of the station.

Expanding on the relationships developed during the construction of the International Space Station, NASA will be partnering with the Japanese, Canadian, and European space agencies to develop key Gateway modules. While details have yet to be finalized, it’s also expected that the Russian space agency Roscosmos will eventually contribute a module of their own.

Despite the incredible payload capacity of NASA’s own Space Launch System, it’s expected that many of the Gateway modules will ultimately be delivered to the Moon by commercial launch vehicles to reduce cost. The agency has also started looking for commercial partners who can perform regular resupply flights to the station, with SpaceX being recently being awarded the first “Gateway Logistics Services” contract.

Setting Up Camp

Looking farther ahead, NASA says they want to establish a permanent outpost on the Moon called “Artemis Base Camp” that can house several astronauts for months at a time. The exact location for the Base Camp hasn’t been decided yet, but the proposal says that somewhere near the South Pole is the logical choice as it would offer long stretches of sunlight and a direct line-of-sight back to Earth. A number of references are made to the area around Shackleton crater, as it’s believed that large deposits of water ice lay at its shadowy bottom. The terrain in this area is also relatively smooth, which would make landing and surface navigation much easier.

The LTV would support exploration near Artemis Base Camp

To that end, the proposal also mentions the need for several ground vehicles at Base Camp. The lunar terrain vehicle (LTV) would be the modern-day equivalent to the “Moon Buggies” made famous during the Apollo missions, while the Habitable Mobility Platform would be a much larger vehicle capable of supporting extended treks away from Base Camp. Without this mobile command center, NASA says that astronauts wouldn’t be able to explore much more than a few kilometers from the Base Camp.

Over time, the infrastructure of Artemis Base Camp would be expanded and improved. Additional facilities providing everything from power generation to waste treatment would be constructed as NASA gains practical experience building structures on the lunar surface.

NASA doesn’t give any sort of timeline for the establishment of Artemis Base Camp, other than saying it would happen sometime after the planned 2024 Artemis III mission which would see the first human landing on the Moon in more than 50 years. An installation of this scale would likely take decades to construct, but given the agency’s goal of establishing a permanent presence on the Moon, that’s not necessarily a problem.

Dream vs Reality

NASA ends the thirteen page proposal by saying that the lessons learned during the Artemis program will put the agency on track towards a human mission to Mars sometime in the 2030s. It says that a fully realized Gateway could allow crews to train for the months-long flight to the Red Planet, and that surface vehicles developed for the Moon could easily be repurposed for Martian use. The Moon can never be a perfect stand in for the unique challenges of a human mission to Mars, but there’s little question that further experience operating outside of low Earth orbit would be beneficial.

That said, until metal is bent and hardware is launched, it’s all just an idea. As we’ve seen time and time again with large NASA projects, securing the necessary funding is always a challenge. The agency also has to contend with political whims, as a program that stretches on for decades would need to have the continued approval of multiple Presidents. In reality there’s absolutely no guarantee that astronauts will one day set out from Base Camp on their LTVs to explore the rim of Shackleton crater; but we can hope.

41 thoughts on “NASA’s Plan For Sustained Lunar Exploration

    1. It certainly brings medical issues to light.

      If something happens in LEO (think ISS) it is maybe a few hours to medical help.

      If something happens in moon orbit, it is likely 3 days to medical help.

      1. Yeah, science agencies have plenty of experience with that already. Winterovers at South Pole, for instance, are a *lot* farther from medical help than 3 days, which has led to quite a few interesting situations. Maybe they could get supplies airdropped in a few days, if they’re lucky.

      2. If something happens in LEO it’s still days away, because coordinating the return mission, departure time, landing zone with acceptable weather and getting recovery crews to that zone is not something that happens immediately.

        More than medical issues, COVID-19 stands as a financial threat to the Artemis program. NASA’s entire budget is $23B a year. For Artemis to happen it is going to need to increase by about 10% a year for the next decade. In the meantime the federal government has already allocated a previously unplanned $2T in COVID-19 related spending, a number that may get doubled or tripled by additional spending bills – meanwhile as COVID-19 has driven unemployment numbers up, the frantic government spending is going to be facing decreased tax revenues next year.

        Things that are expensive, and not seen as important to congress aren’t going to get funded. Judging by the congressional kickback over the first round of Artemis Human Landing System contract awards, crewed lunar exploration in the next decade is not at all a sure thing. There are many on the hill who would much rather keep spending the same amount of money, for no results by stretching out SLS development without ever launching anything.

        1. …not likely….Best to social distance those people until the CCP is only an unpleasent memory. Launching rockets while running concentration camps…hmmmm…now who else in history has done that?

    2. The transmission via air or surfaces of virions to the human mucosa may well already be a solved problem, if you are not scared of GMOs. The biggest medical problem on the moon, other than the longer term gravity and radiation issues etc. may be be physical trauma, it takes a big team of specialists to rescue and save a badly broken human.

        1. Hard to say that, between the UK program’s contribs and having a overwhelming percentage of the team leadership of foreign Jewish refugee contributors who fled the Nazi academic boycot turned genocide it was more of it happened and was possible in that particular geographic and economic polity.

      1. Other “Wolfgangs” come to mind, like von Braun, Oppenheimer, Bethe, Neumann, Einstein, etc, etc, who maybe helped you a little.

        All born Americans, of course.

    3. “The Space Farce is a propaganda tool, nothing that ambitious will be build by America Alone”

      Space Force already exists, it was built years ago as part of the US Air Force, it has simply been split out into a separate service branch because its command and budgetary requirements do not always have the same priorities and direction as the USAF.

      The Space Force has nothing to do with Artemis and human space exploration – that’s NASA and Artemis is very much an international effort.

  1. 1. I like how the inflatable module in the Title Photo has racing stripes!

    2. This is the first time I noticed the similarity to Roscosmos logo and the NASA meatball. (arrowhead with an orbit).

      1. Well, that settles it, I’m going to suggest to my local Mad Scientist (Mad Scientists and Peach Pickers Union Local 384) to incorporate both elements into his space pirates logo!

      2. Wasn’t the Star Trek arrow design nicked form some earlier NASA/USAF logo art?
        Star Trek is from 1966-69 so plenty of US and Soviet space race graphic design from Sputnik in 1957 on available to NBC and Gene Roddenberry to crib design inspiration from.

    1. Despite my OP, I’d like to see it too. Much more so than the silly Gateway station, which was ressurected because SLS can’t do what SaturnV did. But the financial cost of the pandemic will likely kill all attempts to fund such a base. And Gateway, which is a good thing.

    1. LOP-G is planned to go in a highly eliptical 7 day orbit from 30,000km to 70,000km.

      It may come as no surprise that NASA and the partner agencies are aware of the implications of the lunar gravimetric maps they have built, and have planned accordingly.

    2. It’s not really in a lunar orbit. It’s in a near-rectilinear halo orbit, which is close to an L2 orbit. It does require stationkeeping, but it’s instability grows slowly: so even if something happens and a maneuver is missed it’s not that big a deal.

      It’s essentially at “zero energy” in the Earth-Moon system, which makes it an ideal staging point for assembly. NASA has a few papers describing this.

  2. Other than just spending billions of dollars, what’s the actual point of having people on the Moon ?

    You can do more effective science, with a bunch of unmanned rovers.

    1. I don’t disagree but I think we all want to be astronauts, geeks deep in our collective hearts just all do.
      If there is no manned space there is simply no hope.
      It is the same logical fail that has people voting for politicians who create policy which enriches the billionaires who pay for them to be nominated and electable.
      That said I think the hope is empowering, like having a royal family but for an on-paper egalitarian republic, and good science will be done even if the space program is really just a program like most state spending which is to transfer wealth from the earned income class to inheritor and investment income class.

    2. The article mentions this – it’s the best step towards a crewed Mars mission, which would be an actual milestone for the human race – finally venturing out of Earth’s gravity well.
      If humanity is ever to actually go anywhere in space, we must do the small steps first, one by one.

      1. To me spreading the Earth’s biosphere to other worlds is the most important thing humans could possibly do, we’ve made a large impact on our home world but I think we can repay it by spreading life among the stars.

        1. Expanding outwards is the only way for our species to stay viable with its current ideologies. If we continue with our current trends of ever increasing population and increasing consumption we will eventually need to leave earth as its resources are finite. The alternatives definitely kill the vibe when i bring them up at parties (limit population and limit how much stuff people can have)

          There are other arguments too i think, like it being human nature to explore, that we need a goal which is greater then all of us to unite us….or some such.

          Some suggest we sort out the Earth first before we start pocking around other planets. I believe we have had the technology and resources to fix the world for decades but for whatever reason we haven’t done it, i don’t see how saving a few trillion dollars would help speed that along given what we spend money on now.

  3. The cost of funding NASA is a literal DROP IN THE BUCKET compared to other US government programs such as oh… i don’t know…. any single sliver of our military operations. Kind of pathetic how much money we spend on killing vs. discovery and progress vs. science and technologies.

    We could literally be a permanent race if we just put a few dollars and focus on some very big issues that threaten our species (and every other species on this planet) as a whole.

    An asteroid defense system would be great…. seeing as how we have proof that multiple extinctions have happened due to collisions. That includes a lost human civilization… but most people have their heads so far up their own ass that they cannot even imagine anything past their own nose/checkbook.

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