In March of 2019, NASA was directed to develop all the necessary equipment and planning to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024. This plan, officially named Project Artemis, was part of an agency-wide shakeup designed to ensure that the long-awaited return to the Moon takes place sooner than NASA had originally planned. In accordance with their “Moon to Mars” framework, NASA hoped to assemble the Lunar Gateway first, then land astronauts on the surface by 2028.
Unfortunately, this ambitious proposal has led to all sorts of complications and forced NASA to shift certain priorities. Most recently, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) submitted a report that indicated that their new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU) spacesuits will not be ready in time. The resulting delay has prompted Elon Musk to offer the services of SpaceX to expedite the spacesuit’s development and get Artemis back on schedule.
When astronauts return to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era, they will be relying on a number of mission elements to get them there and back safely. This includes the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orionspacecraft that will launch a crew of four and carry them to the Moon. But until recently, the question of how they will get to and from the surface remained unresolved, as there were a few options.
NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) recently announced that a Canadian astronaut will fly as part of the crew of Artemis II. This mission, scheduled for May of 2024, will see an Orion space capsule conduct a circumlunar flight where it flies around the Moon without landing. This will be the first of two crew opportunities that NASA will provide for Canadian astronauts on Artemis missions (as per the agreement).
In October of 2024, NASA will send astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. After establishing orbit with their Orion spacecraft, a team of two astronauts (“the first woman and the next man”) will land in the Moon’s southern polar region. Over the course of a week, these astronauts will explore and investigate one of the region’s many permanently-shadowed craters.
As the first crewed lunar mission in over fifty years, this mission and those that follow will have a robust series of science objectives. These objectives were laid out in the Artemis III Science Definition Team Report, which was released to the public earlier this month. This report is a summary of the science plan prepared at the behest of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) for the Artemis III mission.
In the coming years, astronauts will be returning to the Moon for the first time since the closing of the Apollo Era. Beyond that, NASA and other space agencies plan to establish the necessary infrastructure to maintain a human presence there. This will include the Artemis Gateway in orbit (formerly the Lunar Gateway) and bases on the surface, like NASA’s Artemis Base Camp and the ESA’s International Moon Village.
This presents a number of challenges. The Moon is an airless body, it experiences extreme variations in temperature, and its surface is exposed to far more radiation than we experience here on Earth. On top of that, there’s the lunar dust (aka. regolith), a fine powder that sticks to everything. To address this particular problem, a team of ESA-led researchers is developing materials that will provide better protection for lunar explorers.
For decades, astronomers have speculated that there may be water on the Moon. In recent years, this speculation was confirmed one orbiting satellite after another detected water ice around the Moon’s southern polar region. Within this part of the lunar surface, known as the South-Pole Aitken Basin, water ice is able to persist because of the many permanently-shadowed craters that are located there.
When NASA sends astronauts back to the Moon and to Mars, the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) will be what takes them there. To build these next-generation spacecraft, NASA contracted aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin. Combined with the massive Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft will allow for long-duration missions beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for the first time in over 50 years.
On Monday, Sept. 23rd, NASA and Lockheed Martin announced that they had finalized a contract for the production and operations of six missions using the Orion spacecraft, with the possibility of up to twelve being manufactured in total. This fulfills the requirements for NASA’s Project Artemis and opens the possibility for further missions to destinations like Mars and other locations in deep-space.
Welcome back to our series on Colonizing the Solar System! Today, we take a look at that closest of celestial neighbors to Earth. That’s right, we’re taking a look at the Moon!
Chances are, we’ve all heard about it more than once in our lifetimes and even have some thoughts of our own on the subject. But for space agencies around the world, futurists, and private aerospace companies, the idea of colonizing the Moon is not a question of “if”, but “when” and “how”. For some, establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon is a matter of destiny while for others, it’s a matter of survival.
Not surprisingly, plans for establishing a human settlement predate both the Moon Landing and the Space Race. In the past few decades, many of these plansa have been dusted off and updated thanks to plans for a renewed era of lunar exploration. So what would it take to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon, when could it happen, and are we up to that challenge?
On December 11th, 2017, President Trump issued Space Policy Directive-1, a change in national space policy which tasked NASA with the creation of an innovative and sustainable program of exploration that would send astronauts back to the Moon. This was followed on March 26th, 2019, with President Trump directing NASA to land the first astronauts since the Apollo era on the lunar South Pole by 2024.
Named Project Artemis, after twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology, this project has expedited efforts to get NASA back to the Moon. However, with so much focus dedicated to getting back to the Moon, there are concerns that other projects being neglected – like the development of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a central part of creating a sustained human presence on the Moon and going on to Mars.
Did you know that it’s been almost 45 years since humans walked on the surface of the Moon? Of course you do. Anyone who loves space exploration obsesses about the last Apollo landings, and counts the passing years of sadness.
Sure, SpaceX, Blue Origins and the new NASA Space Launch Systems rocket offer a tantalizing future in space. But 45 years. Ouch, so much lost time.
What would happen if we could go back in time? What amazing and insane plans did NASA have to continue exploring the Solar System? What alternative future could we have now, 45 years later?
In order to answer this question, I’ve teamed up with my space historian friend, Amy Shira Teitel, who runs the Vintage Space blog and YouTube Channel. We’ve decided to look at two groups of missions that never happened.
In my half of the series, I look at Werner Von Braun’s insanely ambitious plans to send a human mission to Mars. Put it together with Amy’s episode and you can imagine a space exploration future with all the ambition of the Kerbal Space Program.
Keep mind here that we’re not going to constrain ourselves with the pesky laws of physics, and the reality of finances. These ideas were cool, and considered by NASA engineers, but they weren’t necessarily the best ideas, or even feasible.
So, 2 parts, tackle them in any order you like. My part begins right now.
Werner Von Braun, of course, was the architect for NASA’s human spaceflight efforts during the space race. It was under Von Braun’s guidance that NASA developed the various flight hardware for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions including the massive Saturn V rocket, which eventually put a human crew of astronauts on the Moon and safely returned them back to Earth.
Von Braun was originally a German rocket scientist, pivotal to the Nazi “rocket team”, which developed the ballistic V-2 rockets. These unmanned rockets could carry a 1-tonne payload 800 kilometers away. They were developed in 1942, and by 1944 they were being used in war against Allied targets.
By the end of the war, Von Braun coordinated his surrender to the Allies as well as 500 of his engineers, including their equipment and plans for future rockets. In “Operation Paperclip”, the German scientists were captured and transferred to the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, where they would begin working on the US rocket efforts.
Before the work really took off, though, Von Braun had a couple of years of relative downtime, and in 1947 and 1948, he wrote a science fiction novel about the human exploration of Mars.
The novel itself was never published, because it was terrible, but it also contained a detailed appendix containing all the calculations, mission parameters, hardware designs to carry out this mission to Mars.
In 1952, this appendix was published in Germany as “Das Marsproject”, or “The Mars Project”. And an English version was published a few years later. Collier’s Weekly Magazine did an 8-part special on the Mars Project in 1952, captivating the world’s imagination.
Here’s the plan: In the Mars Project, Von Braun envisioned a vast armada of spaceships that would make the journey from Earth to Mars. They would send a total of 10 giant spaceships, each of which would weigh about 4,000 tonnes.
Just for comparison, a fully loaded Saturn V rocket could carry about 140 tonnes of payload into Low Earth Orbit. In other words, they’d need a LOT of rockets. Von Braun estimated that 950 three-stage rockets should be enough to get everything into orbit.
All the ships would be assembled in orbit, and 70 crewmembers would take to their stations for an epic journey. They’d blast their rockets and carry out a Mars Hohmann transfer, which would take them 8 months to make the journey from Earth to Mars.
The flotilla consisted of 7 orbiters, huge spheres that would travel to Mars, go into orbit and then return back to Earth. It also consisted of 3 glider landers, which would enter the Martian atmosphere and stay on Mars.
Once they reached the Red Planet, they would use powerful telescopes to scan the Martian landscape and search for safe and scientifically interesting landing spots. The first landing would happen at one of the planet’s polar caps, which Von Braun figured was the only guaranteed flat surface for a landing.
At this point, it’s important to note that Von Braun assumed that the Martian atmosphere was about as thick as Earth’s. He figured you could use huge winged gliders to aerobrake into the atmosphere and land safely on the surface.
He was wrong. The atmosphere on Mars is actually only 1% as thick as Earth’s, and these gliders would never work. Newer missions, like SpaceX’s Red Dragon and Interplanetary Transport Ship will use rockets to make a powered landing.
I think if Von Braun knew this, he could have modified his plans to still make the whole thing work.
Once the first expedition landed at one of the polar caps, they’d make a 6,400 kilometer journey across the harsh Martian landscape to the first base camp location, and build a landing strip. Then two more gliders would detach from the flotilla and bring the majority of the explorers to the base camp. A skeleton crew would remain in orbit.
Once again, I think it’s important to note that Von Braun didn’t truly understand how awful the surface of Mars really is. The almost non-existent atmosphere and extreme cold would require much more sophisticated gear than he had planned for. But still, you’ve got to admire his ambition.
With the Mars explorer team on the ground, their first task was to turn their glider-landers into rockets again. They would stand them up and get them prepped to blast off from the surface of Mars when their mission was over.
The Martian explorers would set up an inflatable habitat, and then spend the next 400 days surveying the area. Geologists would investigate the landscape, studying the composition of the rocks. Botanists would study the hardy Martian plant life, and seeing what kinds of Earth plants would grow.
Zoologists would study the local animals, and help figure out what was dangerous and what was safe to eat. Archeologists would search the region for evidence of ancient Martian civilizations, and study the vast canal network seen from Earth by astronomers. Perhaps they’d even meet the hardy Martians that built those canals, struggling to survive to this day.
Once again, in the 1940s, we thought Mars would be like the Earth, just more of a desert. There’d be plants and animals, and maybe even people adapted to the hardy environment. With our modern knowledge, this sounds quaint today. The most brutal desert on Earth is a paradise compared to the nicest place on Mars. Von Braun did the best he could with the best science of the time.
Finally, at the end of their 400 days on Mars, the astronauts would blast off from the surface of Mars, meet up with the orbiting crew, and the entire flotilla would make the return journey to Earth using the minimum-fuel Mars-Earth transfer trajectory.
Although Von Braun got a lot of things wrong about his Martian mission plan, such as the thickness of the atmosphere and habitability of Mars, he got a lot of things right.
He anticipated a mission plan that required the least amount of fuel, by assembling pieces in orbit, using the Hohmann transfer trajectory, exploring Mars for 400 days to match up Earth and Mars orbits. He developed the concept of using orbiters, detachable landing craft and ascent vehicles, used by the Apollo Moon missions.
The missions never happened, obviously, but Von Braun’s ideas served as the backbone for all future human Mars mission plans.
I’d like to give a massive thanks to the space historian David S.F. Portree. He wrote an amazing book called Humans to Mars, which details 50 years of NASA plans to send humans to the Red Planet, including a fantastic synopsis of the Mars Project.
I asked David about how Von Braun’s ideas influenced human spaceflight, he said it was his…
“… reliance on a conjunction-class long-stay mission lasting 400 days. That was gutsy – in the 1960s, NASA and contractor planners generally stuck with opposition-class short-stay missions. In recent years we’ve seen more emphasis on the conjunction-class mission mode, sometimes with a relatively short period on Mars but lots of time in orbit, other times with almost the whole mission spent on the surface.”