NASA shows fast-tracked 2024 moonshot

NASA has unveiled the detailed plans for Artemis, its suddenly urgent mission to return to the Moon by 2024.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine used a speech on Thursday 23 May to explain in detail how the US space agency plans to make the Artemis mission happen so fast:

1) an uncrewed flight around the moon in 2020
2) the first crewed flight around the moon in 2023
3) and a crewed flight to Gateway and then to land at the Moon’s south pole in 2024.

The project is named for the mythological sister of Apollo. Bridenstine said the first landing mission, Artemis 3, would include the first woman to step foot on the Moon.

If all goes according to plan, later Artemis missions will deliver ‘lunar surface assets’, elements of a proposed future permanent Moon base near water ice deposits at the Moon’s south pole.

The plan includes a new NASA approach: buy services such as a propulsion capability, rather than specifying systems in elaborate detail.

“The goal here is speed,” Bridenstine said, “2024 is right around the corner.”

US Vice-President Mike Pence announced the accelerated Moon mission in March to little fanfare. Many observers doubted NASA’s ability to achieve the tight timetable, four years earlier than the 2028 date to which it had previously been working.

But in the past two weeks NASA has made clear it is speeding up to hit the Trump administration’s target. It has released a video committing to the mission that ends: “We are going”.

The flights will use NASA’s huge and still untested Space Launch System (SLS) and four-astronaut Orion crew capsule to reach an orbiting Moon station called Gateway. From there they will descend to the surface in what it expects will be a two-stage process – first in a ‘transfer vehicle’ to low lunar orbit, and then in a lander.

In 2024, when the Artemis 3 mission is planned, the Gateway station will still be in its early stages; Bridenstine described it as “a very small habitat”.

The US space agency also announced space tech firm Maxar Technologies as the first contractor to work on Gateway. NASA will not specify it in every detail but instead will buy it as a service, Bridenstine said.

Gateway is also expected to act as a way station for future Mars missions. It will be positioned near the balance point between Earth and Moon gravity, allowing it to switch between different positions with relatively little thrust.

It will be built and expanded through five launches between 2022 and 2024 by private space companies which will be paid by NASA. Maxar will develop the power and propulsion component for the first Gateway module, NASA said. That component will be a 50-kilowatt solar electric propulsion unit.

NASA faces a huge task to hit the 2024 target. Current and planned NASA budgets do not fully fund the accelerated mission. Bridenstine admitted in March that “SLS is struggling to meet its schedule”, and the agency has no lunar lander; only last week did it select 11 space technology firms to study various lander elements.

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