Another Rendezvous with the Moon: A Moral Imperative
We are just a few short weeks away from the 50th anniversary of the iconic Eagle’s Landing. Armstrong’s “one giant leap” that day has inspired many for decades. But since that historic moment, we have only been back to the Moon five times—and all before 1973. With no other manned lunar mission since then, it’s been a long while since humanity has personally checked in on our most important satellite. But recently, interest in the Moon has piqued again. With the development of the SLS Program and Project Artemis, as well as private sector-led prizes as well as ideas, our eyes are firmly set on the Moon again.
I am encouraged by these efforts as I believe another rendezvous with our Moon is an absolute necessity in the further development of our Outer Space program. In this piece, I will start by providing a brief overview on the history of Moon landings and where we are today. I will explore the basics behind NASA’s latest manned Lunar Program, Project Artemis, as well as other projects and commercial developments related to the Moon. Finally, due to experimental, operational, and inspirational reasons, I will argue why returning to the Moon is a moral imperative.
The Annals of Moon Landings
Compared to our centuries-long fascination with the Moon, our history of Moon landings is relatively short. On September 14, 1959, the Soviet Union recorded Earth’s first Moon landing with its Luna 2 spacecraft—though this was more of a crash as Luna 2 performed a hard (unpowered) collision into the Moon. On February 3, 1966, the USSR followed its Luna 2 success with its Luna 9 spacecraft performing the first soft landing on the Moon and transmitting the first ever pictures from the lunar surface.
While the Soviet Union was the first nation to the Moon, the United States, via Project Apollo, became the first (and since then only) country to have successfully landed manned Moon missions. On July 20, 1969, the Eagle crew of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, became humanity’s first representatives to step on the Moon (while Michael Collins orbited overhead in the Columbia command module). On their return, they also delivered to Earth its first ever lunar sample. Through the Apollo program, a total of 24 men reached Moon’s orbit, with 12 of these men landing on the Moon. Of the 12 that landed, six drove the lunar roving vehicle.
Since the end of the Apollo Program in 1972, no other person has landed on the Moon. But through the years, other nations have set their sights on the Moon as well. With the crash landing of the lunar orbiter Hiten on April 10, 1993, Japan became the third nation to make it onto the Moon. Next, the European Union joined this list when its orbiter, SMART-1, successfully control-crashed onto the Moon at 2 km/s on September 3, 2006. Then, India became the fifth nation to reach the Moon when its Moon Impact Probe on the Chandrayaan-1 landed there on November 14, 2008. With Chang’e 1, China also landed on this list when this orbiter performed a controlled crash landing on the lunar surface on March 1, 2009—Furthermore, on January 3, 2019, China also made history when its lunar orbiter, Chang’e 4, became the first spacecraft to land on the far side of the Moon. Most recently, Israel became the seventh nation to reach the Moon when the Beresheet—failing its soft-landing—crash landed onto the Moon on April 11, 2019.
In the last decade, private commercial enterprises and organizations have also aimed for the Moon as well. For instance, while supported by the Israel Space Agency, the Israeli Beresheet lander was privately co-developed by SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries. Originally, this lunar mission had been inspired by the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, which sought to “spur affordable access to the moon ….” While the competition ended without a winner, the X Prize Foundation awarded the SpaceIL team the $1 million “Moonshot Award” for the Beresheet attempt.
The Many Moons from Now
With commercial space enterprises flourishing, the Moon has been experiencing a resurging interest. Due to new government programs, international and private initiatives, and commercial undertakings, the Moon will be a popular destination for years to come.
Apollo’s Sister: The Artemis Program
Early this year, the White House announced its intent to accelerate our manned return to the Moon. Named Artemis after the mythical twin sister of Apollo, this program seeks to send humanity’s first woman representative to the Lunar surface in 2024 and create a “sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028.”
The success of the Artemis Program, however, will be heavily dependent on the Space Launch System (“SLS”) Program. Similar to the role that the Saturn V rocket played for the Apollo Program, the SLS rocket is expected to be the primary workhorse for the Artemis Program. The first three missions of the SLS Program, originally known as Exploration Missions 1-3, have been renamed as Artemis 1-3. Under the first mission, Artemis-1 (renamed from EM-1), the SLS rocket along with the Orion spacecraft will be tested through an unmanned three-week mission in Outer Space which will include six days in a deep retrograde lunar orbit. Artemis-1 is currently expected to launch June 2020. If successful, Artemis-2 will then follow Artemis-1’s flight plan but will become the first manned flight of the SLS rocket. Artemis-2 is expected to blast off as early as 2022. These two missions will culminate in Artemis-3, scheduled for 2024, which will send the first female astronaut to the surface of the Moon.
With an accelerated timeline and the full cost of the Artemis Program beyond NASA’s current budget, many are pessimistic of the program’s ability to achieve a lunar landing by 2024. Recently, a Government Accountability Office report noted that the SLS Program will likely not achieve its June 2020 Artemis-1 launch date; it’s more likely that Artemis-1 will launch as late as June 2021. Recognizing this impact on the overall timeline, NASA is contemplating whether to cancel the Green Run—a critical test in which the rocket is held in place while its engines are fully fired up for the full launch duration—for the SLS Program. But, NASA’s own Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel is strongly urging NASA not to skip such test (and in my opinion, rightfully so) as it is “a critical safety and mission assurance milestone for the program.” Additional uncertainties in administrative structure and funding also surround the Artemis Program. After a month and a half on the job, Mark Sirangelo, who was appointed in April to oversee the Artemis Program, has already left the position due to Congress’s refusal to approve a new Moon to Mars Mission Directorate. Additionally, while NASA originally asked for an additional $1.6 billion down payment for the Artemis Program for fiscal year 2020, Administrator Bridenstine recently revealed that the whole program will cost “between 20 to 30 billion dollars” spread over five years on top of NASA’s current budget. With Congress unlikely able to pass such extra funding and the inability of NASA to successfully internally shift its approved funding, many are calling this the death knell of the Artemis Project.
International and Private Involvement: Artemis’ Supporting Programs
The Artemis Program is a part of NASA’s grand initiative, Moon2Mars, that will use missions to the Moon to test and develop the technologies needed to conduct deeper Outer Space exploration missions such as those to Mars and beyond.
Supporting our manned return to the Moon, NASA will continue to develop the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (“LOP-G” or “Gateway”). As explained in one of my earlier posts, the LOP-G is an orbital outpost or gateway around the Moon that will support missions around and on the Moon similar to the role that the International Space Station plays for Earth. While led by NASA, the construction and operation of the Gateway is an international-oriented effort with the European Space Agency, Russian Space Agency, Japanese Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency all participating. The LOP-G is expected to have 8 components including a docking module for the Orion spacecraft. For Artemis-3 in 2024, the Gateway is expected to be the home to two members of the crew while the other two astronauts land on the Moon. Eventually, the space station will be fully operational by 2028 and enable its full crew of four to land on the lunar surface all at once.
Seeking help from private enterprises, NASA, via its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (“CLPS”), will empower the commercial industry to be a part of NASA’s grand Moon plan as well. Under CLPS, private companies will develop the technology needed to deliver various payloads from Earth to the surface of the Moon. In February of this year, 12 different payloads were selected for possible lunar missions under CLPS. Then in May, of the 9 potential CLPS commercial providers, NASA awarded mission contracts to three companies that will send their unmanned landers to the Moon starting in 2020. They are: Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic ($79.5 million), Houston-located Intuitive Machines ($77 million), and Edison, New Jersey-situated OrbitBeyond ($97 million).
Lunar Commercialization: Private Enterprises Moving the Baton
Separate from NASA’s own international and commercial outreach efforts, there are also private enterprises independently seeking to make lunar travel a reality. In fact, companies involved with the design of lunar landers under CLPS are dependent on these private launch services as well. For instance, of the three companies awarded contracts under NASA’s CLPS, two of these enterprises will be launching their landers to Mars via SpaceX’s Falcon 9. While SpaceX is not the only commercial launch enterprise out there, many are drawn to its cheap cost and reliability. In fact, NASA could consider using SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy instead of the SLS rocket for Artemis-1 if there are more delays in the latter’s development.
Separately, SpaceX is also planning its own cislunar project. Late last year, the company announced its first paying passenger, Yusaku Maezawa, for its inaugural trip around the Moon in 2023. For this journey and as a part of his #dearMoon project, Mr. Maezawa will sponsor six to eight artists to accompany him for free. However, the fate of this project is now up in the air as Yusaku recently tweeted that he has no money remaining and is selling paintings to fund his trip.
Not to be beat, Blue Origin also announced its own lunar lander: Blue Moon. The engine for the lander, BE-7, was test-fired for the first time late last month. Been in the works for the past three years, Blue Moon can soft-land 3.6 to 6.5 metric tons of payload on the lunar surface. If all of the preliminary tests go well for the program, it’s highly possible that NASA could integrate the Blue Moon into its own Moon2Mars plans.
Promising the Moon: A Moral Imperative
While the Moon can be a harsh mistress, as I have argued before, I believe that our return to the Moon is a moral imperative. For the continued advancement and success of our Outer Space program, our development of the Moon is an experimental, operational, and inspirational necessity.
First, our return to the Moon is a moral imperative for the experimental training it can provide for further Outer Space exploration.
Outer Space travel is inherently dangerous and much can go wrong in a field where our knowledge is still in its nascency. With traveling time measured in days, the Moon is our nearest natural outpost and provides us an opportunity to learn and develop in a more limited Outer Space sandbox. With these short durational missions, if something were to go wrong, we have an opportunity to save those who are involved and learn from their experiences.
For instance, even though Apollo 13 experienced an oxygen tank explosion post the midcourse point, the crew was able to return safely home through communication and help from NASA ground-based engineers. This accident led to a redesign of the oxygen tank and the use of stainless steel electrical wiring in certain components. If this type of accident were to happen on a months-long journey to Mars, the results would have been far more catastrophic and likely fatal with communication delays of 3 to 21 minutes.
As an experimental necessity, the Moon is an important proving ground for further and longer missions in the Solar System and beyond. We must master the colonization of the Moon to give ourselves the assurance we need to establish a successful presence on Mars. Help from our mother planet is still possible when we are building a Moon base, so any lunar crew should be comforted by the fact that they are not in it alone; engineers from the ground can simultaneously and timely address and troubleshoot any issues. Through these realistic exposures and experiments in the lunar sandbox, we can deepen our knowledge and advance our technologies to become more resilient to the challenging Outer Space environment.
Second, our return to the Moon is a moral imperative for the establishment of an operational foundation for further Outer Space exploration.
A functional Moon base will facilitate our exploration of Mars and beyond. Once established and assuming that we can create a fully functional manufacturing facility on the Moon, it will be a lot cheaper and easier to launch a rocket from the Moon than the Earth. Less fuel will be needed on the Moon due to the lack of an atmosphere and lower forces of gravity. This means that for the same amount of fuel, we can perform longer and farther missions. In fact, we can even discount the distance to the Moon if we were to launch the mission when the destination is closer to the lunar surface than the surface of our mother planet.
Additionally, a Moon base will enable us to tap natural lunar resources such as water and helium-3 (although Outer Space laws related to ownership will need to be changed). These natural resources can be used as rocket fuel for further exploration missions or shipped back to help power industries on Earth. A moon base can also serve as a waypoint for refueling spacecrafts launched from Earth or a communication waypoint for either redundancy or relay purposes to keep in touch with spacecrafts or, potentially, space stations further away in the solar system. As an outpost, it can be another home for humanity, bringing together explorers, adventurers, and people seeking a new way of life.
Third, our return to the Moon is a moral imperative for bringing together and inspiring the next generation of explorers to continue humanity’s quest for further Outer Space exploration.
Our first foray to the Moon was, well, a moonshot. President JFK, in announcing our original ambitious plan to land on the Moon, stated that the “goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept....” Almost 50 years ago, the first Apollo landing was able to unite our country and capture the imagination of the world. But today, a majority of Americans aren’t even interested in a return to the Moon. And it is precisely for this reason that we must go back; in shying away from accomplishing extraordinary tasks, we lose an important trait of what makes humanity great: our curiosity. By successfully returning to the Moon, we might reignite our flame and passion for exploration—allowing us to once again experience the joy of discovery.
On a clear night sky, a child might look up to the Moon and ponder the question of what’s out there. We can only address these thoughts if we return to the Moon again; we can dazzle this child with tales of human ingenuity that facilitated our species to grow and extend our territory by leaps and bounds. We can teach the child how we were able to not only survive but strive in an oxygen-free environment. And perhaps inspired by these accomplishments, we can shape this child to be the next explorer who will take us to worlds uncharted and technologies undiscovered. And maybe, all of these successes by this child—now adult—might lead another child to continue to roll the human wheel of progress ever forward.
Dreaming of the Moon and the Stars
For me, returning to the Moon is a moral imperative. In our current age of seemingly endless division, our activities on the Moon might wake us up again to the fact that in the grand scheme of the universe, we are all from the same place.
But our return to the Moon is not our final destination: it’s just a layover in our continued path of growth as we march toward our next unknown. After all, as Carl Sagan said, it will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars. It will be a species very like us, but with more of strengths, and fewer of our weaknesses; more confident, farseeing, capable and prudent. But in order for our descendants to get there, we must keep the flame and the inspiration alive. And near Apollo 11’s golden anniversary, I can think of no better tribune to the ones who have carried this torch by returning to the place where we had our first giant leap.
Apollo 11 (the movie): https://www.apollo11movie.com/
Blue Moon: https://www.blueorigin.com/blue-moon
Forward to the Moon: NASA’s Strategic Plan for Lunar Exploration: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/america_to_the_moon_2024_artemis_20190523.pdf
Google Lunar XPrize: https://www.xprize.org/prizes/google-lunar
Interplanetary Podcast #137 – David Baker – FRB: https://www.interplanetary.org.uk/single-post/2019/06/14/137---David-Baker---FRB
Main Engine Cut Off Podcast – T+121: Artemis, Blue Moon, Starship, and Politics: https://mainenginecutoff.com/podcast/121
Moon Express: http://www.moonexpress.com/
NASA’s Moon2Mars: https://www.nasa.gov/specials/moon2mars/
Planetary Radio Podcast: Talking with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine: http://www.planetary.org/multimedia/planetary-radio/show/2019/0522-2019-2019-jim-bridenstine.html
Project Artemis: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/what-is-artemis/
The Apollo Missions: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/missions/index.html
The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway: The Proper Next Step: https://alexsli.com/thespacebar/2018/3/25/the-lunar-orbital-platform-gateway-the-proper-next-step