In March of 2019, NASA was directed by the White House to land human beings on the Moon within five years. Known as Project Artemis, this expedited timeline has led to a number of changes and shakeups at NASA, not the least of which has to do with the deprioritizing of certain elements. Nowhere is this more clear than with the Lunar Gateway, an orbital habitat that NASA will be deploying to cislunar space in the coming years.
Originally, the Gateway was a crucial part of the agency’s plan to create a program of “sustainable lunar exploration.” In March of this year, NASA announced that the Lunar Gateway is no longer a priority and that Artemis will rely on an integrated lunar lander instead. However, NASA still hopes to build the Gateway, and according to a recent interview with ArsTechnica, this could be done with the help of SpaceX and the Falcon Heavy.
The prospect of mining asteroids and the Moon is on a lot of peoples’ minds lately. Maybe it’s all the growth that’s happened in the commercial aerospace industry in the past few decades. Or perhaps it’s because of Trump’s recent executive order to allow for asteroid and lunar mining. Either way, there is no shortage of entrepreneurs and futurists who can’t wait to start prospecting and harvest the natural bounty of space!
Coincidentally enough, future lunar miners now have a complete map of the lunar surface, which was created by the US Geological Society’s (USGS) Astrogeology Science Center, in collaboration with NASA and the Lunar Planetary Institute (LPI). This map shows the distribution and classification of the mineral deposits on the Moon’s surface, effectively letting us know what its familiar patchwork of light and dark patches the really are.
In less than four years, NASA plans to send astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo era (Project Artemis). But this time, NASA plans to build the infrastructure needed to ensure a “sustainable program” of lunar exploration. In short, we’re going back to the Moon and this time, we plan to stay! To help them get there, the agency has partnered with commercial aerospace companies to provide logistical support.
In addition, NASA recently named three companies to develop vehicles for the Artemis missions that will be capable of landing astronauts on the lunar surface. They include the commercial space powerhouses SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as the Alabama-based Dynetics, all of whom are tasked with developing Human Landing Systems (HLS) that can be deployed from their respective heavy launch systems (or another commercial provider).
In 2015, the Obama administration signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA, or H.R. 2262) into law. This bill was intended to “facilitate a pro-growth environment for the developing commercial space industry” by making it legal for American companies and citizens to own and sell resources that they extract from asteroids and off-world locations (like the Moon, Mars, or beyond).
In the coming years, NASA plans to return astronauts to the Moon as part of Project Artemis. However, the long-term goal is to establish a sustainable program for lunar exploration, as well as a permanent human presence on the Moon. A key aspect of this plan is the Lunar Gateway, an orbiting habitat that will allow for long-duration missions to the lunar surface (and eventually to Mars.)
To realize this goal, NASA is moving ahead with the development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft. The agency also recently announced that it has awarded its first contract to SpaceX as part of the Gateway Logistics Services (GLS) program. As per this agreement, SpaceX will be tasked with delivering cargo, experiments, and other supplies to the agency’s Lunar Gateway once it is deployed in orbit of the Moon.
Last Wednesday (March 18th), the world was saddened to hear of the death of Apollo astronaut Alfred “Al” Worden, who passed away after suffering a stroke at an assisted living facility in Texas. A former Colonel in the US Marine Corps who obtained his Bachelor of Science from West Point Academy in 1955 and his Master of Science at the University of Michigan in 1963, Worden went on to join NASA.
However, in recent years, these plans have been altered considerably to prioritize “returning to the Moon.” Formally named Project Artemis, VP Pence emphasized in March of 2019 that NASA must return to the Moon by 2024, even if it meant some shakeups were needed. In the latest news, NASA has indicated that the Lunar Gateway is no longer a priority, as part of a plan to “de-risk” the mandatory tasks associated with Artemis.
Originally, it was hoped that the first uncrewed flight of the SLS and Orion (Artemis I) would take place later this year. But according to recent statements by Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk, this inaugural launch will most likely take place “mid to late” in 2021. This is the latest in a series of delays for the high-profile project, which has been making impressive progress nevertheless.
Ever since it made its historic landing on Jan. 3rd, 2019, the Chang’e-4 mission and its Yutu 2 rover have been busy exploring the lunar surface. Just recently, the mission passed its first year of operations and earned the distinction of being the first rover to travel a record 357.695 meters (1,173.5 ft) on the far side of the Moon. And in between all that, the mission has also provided some truly fascinating images of the lunar surface.