For the First Time Since the 1970s, It’s Not Clear if the U.S. Can Actually Send Astronauts to the Moon

  • NASA is facing growing ridicule over the complications of the Artemis program.

  • The Apollo missions were simpler than U.S.'s current spacecraft jumble.

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After bringing the Mars Sample Return mission to a halt and seeking help from the private sector to bring back the samples collected by the Perseverance rover, NASA is now facing growing ridicule over the complications of the Artemis program. Artemis is the name of the U.S. initiative to return to the Moon and set up a manned station.

Compared to Artemis, the Apollo Missions Were Simple

Maciej Cegłowski, the owner of Pinboard, recently published an extensive critique of the Artemis program, questioning each component of NASA’s missions to return to the Moon. Cegłowski’s reflection coincides with that of a widely shared video posted by engineer Destin Sandlin, the person behind the Smarter Every Day YouTube channel, regarding the fact that, compared to the Artemis missions, the Apollo missions were relatively simple.

Artemis III is scheduled for September 2026. It would mark the return of the U.S. to the Moon, following the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, and would mark the first time a woman ever set foot on the lunar surface. The mission profile is quite complex:

  1. Four astronauts will be launched into space with NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, manufactured by Boeing.
  2. The astronauts will travel to the Moon aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin.
  3. The Orion spacecraft will enter a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the Moon, in order to save fuel.
  4. There, it will dock with a SpaceX Starship. Two of the four astronauts will transfer to Starship in order to land on the Moon.
  5. To reach the Moon, the Starship must refuel in low Earth orbit, which requires at least ten launches of the Starship-Super Heavy system to transfer the propellants.
  6. After landing, the two astronauts will spend a few days on the lunar surface before returning to lunar orbit aboard the Starship.
  7. The Starship will dock again with the Orion spacecraft, and the four astronauts will return to Earth in NASA’s capsule.

There’s no Plan B; the Starship system was chosen as the sole lander for the Artemis III and IV missions. So, until SpaceX proves it can safely conduct fuel transfers and land a Starship on the Moon, there will be no Artemis III or IV.

Even SpaceX CEO Elon Musk doubts this will happen by 2026, so NASA is considering alternatives like making Artemis III a mission without a lunar landing, or testing the Orion-Starship docking in low Earth orbit.

The Mission InvolvesMany Vehicles. None Are Ideal

The convoluted architecture of the Artemis program wasn't designed at random. There's a reason behind it. The SLS rocket comes from a previous program called Constellation, which was cancelled. Despite the fact that the rocket reuses components from the Space Shuttle system, it's one of the most expensive parts of the program: the development costs of the SLS is estimated to be around $17 billion, with each disposable rocket launch costing approximately $4.1 billion. The total cost of Artemis III is estimated to be  between $7 billion and $10 billion.

The Orion spacecraft also comes from the Constellation program. It was originally designed for six crew members, which makes it larger and heavier than necessary. The Orion uses a service module based on the European ATV spacecraft, developed by the European Space Agency for the Constellation program.

The Orion will enter a near rectilinear halo orbit, or NRHO, around the Moon to save fuel, but this, in turn, increases the mission’s length as well as its risks.

As for the Starship, its development is proving to be as fast-paced as any other SpaceX program. However, the gigantic vehicle was originally designed to send hundreds of tons of cargo and crew to Mars, making it, again, oddly large for these purposes. The Starship is so tall that the two crew members will have to descend some 130 feet by elevator in order to reach the lunar surface. Its enormous dimensions will certainly have many advantages for future lunar bases, but for now, they complicate NASA’s ability to land on the Moon and then have enough fuel to take off toward orbit.

Improvising Alternatives While China Continues To Do Its Own Thing

As an alternative to taking off from the Moon with Starship, NASA researchers have proposed attaching a normal-sized capsule at the tip, which would be used to return to orbit. This solution would leave Starship abandoned on the lunar surface and avoid problems associated with its size.

Now, no one will ever take away the U.S.'s title as the first country to land on the Moon. However, there is much skepticism, both outside and inside NASA, about whether the current Artemis approach will be able to achieve a manned lunar landing–not before 2026, but before 2030, when China plans to land on the Moon for the first time.

China still has a chance to take the first woman to the Moon. As with the Mars Sample Return mission, China has a simpler alternative for a 2030 manned flight to the Moon. In the Chinese plan, two CZ-10 rockets will launch two small spacecraft separately; the Mengzhou spacecraft will carry three astronauts from Earth to lunar orbit and the Lanyue spacecraft will take two of them to the surface of the Moon and back to the Mengzhou, which will then bring them back to Earth.

Image | NASA

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