Through the Artemis Program, NASA intends to send astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. But this time, they intend to stay and establish a lunar base and other infrastructure by the end of the decade that will allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.” To accomplish this, NASA is enlisting the help of fellow space agencies, commercial partners, and academic institutions to create the necessary mission elements – these range from the launch systems, spacecraft, and human landing systems to the delivery of payloads.
This new collaborative venture, known as the Space Unmanned Construction Innovative Technology Development Promotion Project, will create an A4CSEL system capable of operating in the harsh lunar environment. In a recent statement, Kajima announced that it would connect the approximately 20-square kilometer (7.72 mi2) Kashima Seisho Experimental Field with JAXA’s Sagamihara Campus. Here, they are conducting experiments to validate automated remote construction machinery in a simulated lunar environment, which could lead to the creation of a lunar base!
Caves were some of humanity’s first shelters. Who knows what our distant ancestors were thinking as they sought refuge there, huddling and cooking meat over a fire, maybe drawing animals on the walls. Caves protected our ancient ancestors from the elements, and from predators and rivals, back when sticks, stones, furs and fire were our only technologies.
So there’s a poetic parallel between early humans and us. We’re visiting the Moon again, and lunar caves could shelter us the way caves sheltered our ancestors on Earth.
Through the Artemis Program, NASA plans to send the first astronauts to the Moon in over fifty years. Before the decade is over, this program aims to establish the infrastructure that will allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.” The European Space Agency (ESA) also has big plans, which include the creation of a Moon Village that will serve as a spiritual successor to the International Space Station (ISS). China and Roscosmos also came together in June 2021 to announce that they would build the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) around the lunar south pole.
In all cases, space agencies plan to harvest local resources to meet their construction and long-term needs – a process known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). Based on samples returned by the fifth mission of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (Chang’e-5), a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) identified indigenous glass fibers for the first time. According to a paper they authored, these fibers were formed by past impacts in the region and could be an ideal building material for future lunar bases.
Weiren Wu, the Chief Designer of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), recently announced an ambitious plan to put Chinese footprints on the lunar surface by 2030. This announcement came just prior to this year’s Space Day of China, an annual event celebrated on April 24th meant to showcase the space industry achievements of the China National Space Administration (CNSA).
Within the next decade, several space agencies and commercial space partners will send crewed missions to the Moon. Unlike the “footprints and flags” missions of the Apollo Era, these missions are aimed at creating a “sustained program of lunar exploration.” In other words, we’re going back to the Moon with the intent to stay, which means that infrastructure needs to be created. This includes spacecraft, landers, habitats, landing and launch pads, transportation, food, water, and power systems. As always, space agencies are looking for ways to leverage local resources to meet these needs.
This process is known as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), which reduces costs by limiting the number of payloads that need to be launched from Earth. Thanks to new research by a team from the Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) in Estonia, it may be possible for astronauts to produce solar cells using locally-sources regolith (moon dust) to create a promising material known as pyrite. These findings could be a game-changer for missions in the near future, which include the ESA’s Moon Village, NASA’s Artemis Program, and the Sino-Russian International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).
Between the multiple space agencies planning to conduct crewed missions to the lunar surface, the many commercial entities who’ve contracted them to assist them, and proposals for lunar bases, the message of the modern space age is clear: We’re going back to the Moon. And this time, we intend to stay! Just like the efforts of the Apollo Era, this entails several challenges, ones that require “the best of our energies and skills.”
These challenges are leading to all sorts of innovative solutions, which recognize the need to leverage lunar resources to provide protection against the environment and see to peoples’ needs. A new proposal made by a team from the International Space University (ISU) has found a novel way to do just that. Their proposal? Use the SpaceX Starship Human Landing System (HLS) as the foundation for a lunar base.
In this decade, multiple space agencies and commercial space entities will be taking us back to the Moon. But unlike the Apollo Era, the goal of these programs is not “footprints and flags,” but to establish the necessary infrastructure to keep going back. In particular, NASA, the ESA, Roscosmos, and China are all planning on establishing outposts that will allow for scientific research and a sustained human presence.
The ESA is currently showcasing what its outpost will look like at the 17th annual Architecture Exhibition at the La Biennale di Venezia museum in Venice. It’s known as the International Moon Village, which was designed by the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) with technical support from the ESA. This same company recently unveiled a prototype of the skeletal metal component that will one day be part of the Village’s lunar habitats.
In the coming years, multiple space agencies will be sending astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the closing days of the Apollo Program. For NASA, this will represent the long-awaited “return to the Moon,” while every other space agency will see it as a tremendous step for their space programs. One thing they all have in common is that this time around, the goal is to build the necessary infrastructure that will allow for a long-term human presence.
However, amid all the excitement of this approaching moment in history are concerns about the lack of an international framework that will ensure our efforts are for the sake of “for all humankind.” Whereas NASA is seeking partners for its Artemis Program through bilateral agreements, Russia and China are pursuing an agreement of their own. They call it the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), and they too are looking for partners in this endeavor.
Between now and the end of this decade, multiple space agencies plan to send astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. But whereas Apollo was a “footprints and flags” affair, the current proposals for lunar exploration call for the creation of infrastructure that allow for a sustained human presence there. In addition to NASA’s Artemis Program, the ESA is also working on a plan to create an “International Moon Village.”
For years, the ESA has released teasers as to what this “successor to the International Space Station” (ISS) might look like, the latest of which is on display at the La Biennale di Venezia museum in Venice. As part of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition, the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) showcased their design (with technical support from the ESA) for a semi-inflatable lunar habitat that could facilitate long-term lunar settlement.