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NASA’s daunting to-do list for sending people back to the Moon

The agency needs a finished rocket, a tiny space station, and a brand new lander

Illustrations by Alex Castro / The Verge

A half-century after landing the first humans on the Moon, NASA is looking to put people back on the lunar surface, but this time the agency has an even more ambitious deadline to meet. The goal is to send humans back to the Moon by 2024, a mere five years from now. NASA has a whole lot more hardware to develop this time — which leaves many wondering if such an extremely ambitious lunar return can be done.

NASA’s plan to return to the Moon is called Artemis, and like Apollo, the program requires a giant rocket as well as landers to take people to the lunar surface. Perhaps the biggest thing that sets Artemis apart from the Apollo program is that this time, the emphasis is on sustainability. Rather than just send people to walk around the Moon for a few hours, NASA wants to build some kind of sustainable outpost near the lunar surface for the foreseeable future. That’s why Artemis includes a separate component dubbed the Gateway — a space station meant to be built in orbit around the Moon. Instead of people traveling directly to the lunar surface from Earth, they’d travel to the Gateway first and then travel in landers to the Moon.

It’s not enough just to build this hardware — it will all have to be tested, too

Some of the hardware needed for Artemis is already deep into development. A massive rocket called the Space Launch System and a deep space crew capsule called Orion have both been in the works for about a decade. Together, they’re supposed to fly for the first time in 2021. But both the Gateway and the landers needed for Artemis are just getting underway.

It’s not enough just to build this hardware — it will all have to be tested, too. It’s a lot to get done, and much of the success of this project hinges on whether NASA can get the money it needs to pull it off. The fact that the NASA administrator continues to shake up personnel assignments isn’t a good sign either. Three high-ranking NASA officials have either left or been reassigned in the last few months. Reassignments within the agency are typically a big red flag that NASA is not happy with the way things are being run, and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has said he hopes to get new leaders who can provide better cost and schedule estimates.

Bridenstine insists the architecture for Artemis is staying the same for now, despite the leadership shakeup. Any drastic changes would certainly affect the possibilities for success. But even without any major shifts, it will be very incredible if this ambitious Moon plan can be pulled off at all.

The transportation

Artemis is essentially being built around the transportation hardware that NASA has been working on for more than a decade. Back when George W. Bush was president, NASA was also trying to go back to the Moon — with an initiative dubbed Constellation. For that program, the agency was working on a deep space crew capsule called Orion, as well as a massive rocket called Ares V. When Constellation was canceled under the Obama administration, those two pieces of hardware survived, with Ares V morphing into the SLS. NASA has long argued that the SLS is critical to any deep-space initiatives, as it’ll be the most powerful rocket around when finished, capable of lofting between 57,000 and 88,000 pounds to the Moon.

But even with such a big head start, neither vehicle is ready to fly. The first flight of the SLS was meant to occur as early as 2017, but it’s now looking as if this first flight will occur in 2021, according to Bridenstine. Both programs have been plagued by cost overruns and delays, which have garnered them plenty of critics who argue that NASA should rely on commercial rockets that are already flying and are cheaper to fly.

despite having such a big head start, neither vehicle is ready to fly

Despite the turmoil surrounding the programs, this leg of the Artemis initiative is perhaps the furthest along than anything else. NASA even considered flying Orion around the Moon using commercial rockets, like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and ULA’s Delta IV Heavy rocket, but the agency ultimately decided to stick with the SLS, arguing that it would have been more complex at this point to make the switch. The rocket and capsule are all but guaranteed to survive, due to well-positioned lawmakers that want the vehicles’ production to continue in their states.

Once the SLS and Orion fly on their first mission together — a test launch dubbed Artemis 1 — their next mission will carry crew on another test flight around the Moon called Artemis 2. The third flight of the pair, artfully named Artemis 3, will take people to the Gateway that NASA is planning to build, a way station that they’ll visit before descending to the Moon’s surface.

The outpost

The Gateway is the one aspect of the Artemis program that is supposed to make the entire project more sustainable than Apollo. It’s essentially a smaller version of the International Space Station that will reside in orbit around the Moon. The goal is for the Gateway to serve as a platform where astronauts can live, train, and do research for short periods of time, before heading down to the lunar surface to explore.

NASA first introduced the Gateway concept in March of 2017, after President Trump had recently been elected and before the campaign to return humans to the Moon gained full steam. The agency conceived of the Gateway as a chain of modules strung together, with habitats linked to labs, cargo holds, and power stations. Just like the International Space Station was brought together over time, the modules would come from multiple different partners — either commercial companies or other international space agencies. The idea was for the Gateway to come together slowly, with humans first visiting the outpost in 2024 and then traveling to the Moon in 2028.

The Gateway concept has been a fairly controversial addition

Then the Trump administration threw that plan out the window. Not only did the White House want astronauts to visit the Gateway for the first time in 2024, but the administration also told NASA that humans should travel to the Moon’s surface on that trip, too. With this acceleration came a slimmed-down version of the Gateway concept. Rather than create a fully fleshed out space station before lunar landings begin, now NASA is focused on getting the smallest possible outpost ready by 2024. Informally dubbed the “skinny” Gateway, this station would just be two modules, forming a place where astronauts can dock and transfer into a lander without lingering too long.

The Gateway concept has been a fairly controversial addition to the agency’s lunar architecture, even before the push for 2024. Some experts, including a former NASA administrator, argue that building the Gateway is a costly and unnecessary step in the Artemis program that will add complexity to the mission and make the entire effort less safe. Instead, advocates like Robert Zubrin of The Mars Society have called for just traveling directly to the lunar surface, sending equipment for the journey to the Moon ahead of time. By using the Gateway instead, NASA will expend a lot of extra energy just to build the station and get people there, Zubrin argues.

For now, NASA is moving forward with the Gateway and has already tasked aerospace company Maxar with creating the first key element of the station. This module will be equipped with solar panels and thrusters to provide power and mobility to the entire Gateway. This piece is supposed to be completed and launched on a commercial rocket by 2022. However, NASA’s new temporary head of human exploration, Ken Bowersox, hinted that the changes to the final design of the Gateway may be on the horizon, so it’s possible this element of Artemis could get an overhaul.

The landing

The lander, the most crucial piece needed to actually get to the Moon, is still a bit of a question mark for NASA. The agency has yet to make a decision about which commercial space company will create the hardware. And NASA hopes to pick up to two lander designs for Artemis, according to Bridenstine.

NASA has started its search and is already being pitched hard on lander concepts. In April, Lockheed Martin unveiled its idea for a lunar lander that draws heavily on the design of the Orion crew capsule (which Lockheed Martin is building for NASA). And in May, Blue Origin unveiled the company’s Blue Moon human lander concept. The company has been working on Blue Moon for three years already, and fired up the engine developed for the lander for the first time in June.

the clock is ticking and NASA needs to make a decision soon

No matter who NASA chooses, the space agency will be trying things a little differently with this project. Typically when NASA assigns contractors to design big pieces of hardware, the agency has a lot of control over the design and oversees much of the production process. But recently, NASA has been experimenting with a new way of doing business that gives the companies more control in what they build. Known as a fixed-price contract, NASA simply gives a company a lump sum of money to develop a vehicle, and the company is in charge of the design, with less input from NASA. It’s the same model that NASA has used for its Commercial Crew and Cargo programs, where companies like SpaceX, Boeing, and others have developed systems to transport supplies — and eventually astronauts — to the International Space Station.

Ultimately, the goal is to save money and give companies more freedom to create vehicles the way they see fit. But of course, the clock is ticking and NASA needs to make a decision soon if the agency is going to have any hope of meeting 2024. Blue Origin says it has a head start, which may help. But there’s likely to be tons of testing involved with this lander, given how critical it is to the entire mission. Whether or not five years is enough time for all that to happen remains to be seen.

The suits

The hardware that carries the astronauts isn’t the only thing getting a redesign. Creating new space suits may not seem as daunting as building new landers and a space station, but these interplanetary ensembles are crucial to any future Moon landing. Unfortunately, NASA has struggled to develop its next-generation suits. A 2017 report from NASA’s Office of the Inspector General found that the agency is still many years away from having new suits ready for deep space exploration.

Part of the problem surrounding space suit development has been a lack of clarity over NASA’s destination. “As far as design considerations for space suits go, one of the key factors that they need to know is: where we’re going, and what missions are we going to perform,” Letisha Antone, the program manager on the OIG report about NASA’s space suits, tells The Verge. Bush’s Constellation program would have gone back to the Moon, Obama would have sent NASA astronauts to either the surface of an asteroid, onto Mars, or — tentatively — to the vicinity of the Moon. Each of those destinations has different environmental factors that could require changes to the suit.

“a space suit architecture that is flexible, one that can be used both in low Earth orbit and at the Moon.”

Just like the future lander, the agency needs to get working on the suits soon to meet the 2024 deadline. But even with a firm destination set under the Trump administration, it’s unclear how NASA will move forward with space suits. Figuring out what Artemis astronauts want to do on the Moon will be a huge design factor. No plans have been revealed, but Bridenstine says the suits will be compatible with multiple space locations. “What we’re looking at is a space suit architecture that is flexible, one that can be used both in low Earth orbit and at the Moon,” he testified before the Senate Commerce committee on July 17th. He also said the plan is to test parts of the space suits on the International Space Station by 2020, and then have fully functioning suits for the Artemis mission by 2023. “If we were to get Artemis funded, we could accelerate those to build margin into the schedule,” he said.

The situation

NASA may have the technical chops to pull this off, but the agency will need a boost in funding to complete the entire Artemis program within such a tight time frame. The White House asked for an additional $1.6 billion for NASA for next year, on top of the agency’s regular budget request, to help fund Artemis. Bridenstine recently said the entire Artemis program over the next five years will require an extra $20 to $30 billion, in addition to NASA’s average annual budget. (Though he has hedged a few times saying it could cost less than that since the agency will be partnering heavily with the commercial space industry.)

That’s a substantial increase, akin to the increases that NASA got during the Cold War for Apollo. But today’s Congress may be reluctant to give funding to an administration that has been fraught with controversy. It also doesn’t help politically that the initial $1.6 billion the White House requested for NASA was drawn from a surplus in Pell Grants, which provides scholarships to college students in need of financial aid.

there’s a very real chance that NASA may not get a new budget by the end of the year

Additionally, there’s a very real chance that NASA may not get a new budget by the end of the year, but instead may be funded through a continuing resolution — a temporary measure that will provide money to the agency while a full year-long budget is decided. During continuing resolutions, NASA programs are funded at their lowest proposed levels, which could stall development. “The reality is we then do not make investments that we need to make,” Bridenstine said during the July 17th hearing about the possibility of a continuing resolution. “But even worse, we continue to make investments that we don’t need to make. And so it is, in fact, a waste of money when we end up in a [continuing resolution], and that’s one of my biggest concerns.”

For now, this funding uncertainty combined with the razor-thin timelines for the program’s hardware — whether it’s the rocket, the lander, the space station, or even the suits — makes it seem that the entire Artemis architecture is in fragile condition at the moment. If all goes well, the system just might work on schedule, but a delay to any major component of the process could further hinder NASA’s chances of meeting their 2024 deadline, and once again postpone a countdown to history.