NASA is gearing up to begin a new era of deep space exploration by returning humans to moon after about half a century, as a step to go to Mars and beyond.
Fifty years ago, a historic feat was achieved that expanded the horizons of space exploration for humans. Apollo 15, the seventh Apollo mission and the first of three Apollo “J” missions by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was launched with Commander David R. Scott, Command Module Pilot Alfred M. Worden, and Lunar Module Pilot James B. Irwin for the Moon expedition over longer duration with enhanced scientific instrument. Apollo 15 was the first mission where astronauts used the Apollo Lunar Surface Drill (ALSD) and the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV).
Building on this mission, NASA is now preparing to launch the first module of its Artemis Program, a mission with which NASA plans to land the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon to explore more of the lunar surface.
During Apollo 15, Scott and Irwin landed on the Moon. They used the ALSD at the location where several scientific instruments were set up during the nearly 67 hours for which the astronauts were on the lunar surface. The tool was a rotary-percussive drill that used a combined motion that hammered a rotating drill bit into the surface to create a hole. The overall purpose of gathering core samples was part of NASA’s lunar geology studies to learn more about the composition of the Moon and discover more about its history by looking at different kinds of rocks, including some from below the surface, NASA informed.
The Apollo program allowed 12 American astronauts to walk on the moon with a total of 11 spaceflights conducted during the program.
Scott and Irwin touched down at the Hadley-Apennine site and conducted four spacewalks, including three excursions using the LRV, for a combined total of 19 hours. They also deployed an experiment package and collected 170 pounds of rock and soil samples to return on Earth. With a brief test drive of LRV or Rover, Scott also became the first human to drive on the Moon.
The Apollo program allowed 12 American astronauts to walk on the moon. A total of 11 spaceflights were conducted during the program, the first four of these tested the equipment used in the Apollo Program and six out of the remaining seven flights landed on the lunar surface. The first Apollo flight happened in 1968, the first moon landing in 1969 and the last moon landing took place in 1972.
Now, NASA is gearing up to return to the Moon with the Artemis missions. The program features a new drill headed to the lunar surface as a commercially delivered payload via the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain (TRIDENT) is key to locating ice and other resources on the Moon. Furthermore, TRIDENT is a rotary-percussive drill, but unlike its Apollo counterpart, TRIDENT does not require astronauts to work it manually.
As a part of Artemis, there will even be Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment-1 (PRIME-1), the inaugural in-situ resource utilisation demonstration on the Moon. For the first time, NASA will robotically sample and analyse for ice from below the surface. PRIME-1 will be utilizing TRIDENT to drill in a single location at a site with a high probability of presence of water (in liquid or ice form). It will drill down about 3 feet (1 meter) below the surface, each time bringing up samples that NASA will analyse with a scientific instrument – the Mass Spectrometer observing lunar operations (MSolo).
As a part of Artemis, there will even be Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment-1 (PRIME-1), the inaugural in-situ resource utilisation demonstration on the Moon.
The Hadley Rille, which is a long, deep channel-like gorge in the Moon’s surface, situated at the base of the Apennines Mountains,is north of the Moon’s equator where Apollo 15 landed while the PRIME-1’s destination is the Moon’s South Pole – a location where NASA has previously detected water from space.
About a year after the PRIME-1 mission, NASA plans to send an exploratory rover – Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER – to the surface. NASA’s first mobile robotic mission to the Moon, VIPER will carry a TRIDENT drill and scientific instruments that will enable it to directly analyse water ice on the surface and subsurface of the Moon at varying depths and temperature conditions. VIPER is scheduled to explore multiple sites on the lunar South Pole for about 100 days.
Additionally, NASA has a new rocket for Artemis, the Space Launch System (SLS), which will carry the Orion spacecraft on top. Orion that can carry up to four astronauts, will orbit the Moon. A spaceship, called the Gateway, will be orbiting the Moon like the Moon orbits Earth. Orion will connect to the Gateway and astronauts will go from Orion to the Gateway. This is where astronauts will live while orbiting the Moon and take trips to get to work on the lunar surface. Then they will return to Gateway. When all of their work is finished, the crew will return to Earth aboard Orion, the space agency had stated.
Through Artemis, NASA affirmed that it is preparing to send new capabilities to the Moon that will enable people to stay there for longer than ever before, because learning how to find and use water would be a key to living and working on the Moon and other deep space destinations. Artemis’ Moon mission, scheduled to take humans on our natural satellite is especially a step to taking humans to Mars.
Artemis’s first stage is expected this year and the landing of the first crew is scheduled for 2024.
“As we prepare to send humans forward to the Moon and ultimately to Mars,” former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine had remarked about the program, “the scope and nature of the Artemis program will build on our partnerships in low-Earth orbit and result in NASA leading the largest and most diverse international space effort in history to the Moon.”
In one of the episodes of “Houston We Have a Podcast”, the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center from Houston, Nujoud Merancy, Chief of the Exploration Mission Planning Office stated that while Apollo was more about getting to the Moon as fast as one can, with Artemis, the focus is on becoming sustainable, which means to be able to explore for longer durations, potentially build bases, but also demonstrate things needed to go to Mars. “And all of the things you need to go to Mars, involve much longer durations, surface stays on Mars are basically 30 days to 6 months, so you need to be able to do long duration stays and have a long-term buildup of stuff,” she added. Another difference is that while for Apollo it was an equatorial orbit, for Artemis it will be a polar lunar orbit, which means it goes North - South instead of East - West, around the Moon.
Nevertheless, Artemis is created on the framework of its twin sister from half a century ago as various things from Apollo are being reused or improvised upon. “I mean the enormous vehicle assembly building at Kennedy Space Center, was built for Apollo. It stacked the shuttle, it launched all of the U.S. elements to the space station, and now it's going to stack SLS and Orion for Artemis. So, even some of those features we have from Apollo, are still around helping us out today, and the physics didn't change. So how you design a trajectory to the Moon, a lot of that math is exactly the same, and we're just using it differently, Merancy added, hoping that once we fly Artemis 3, it will only be the first of many flights to the Moon and then Mars.
Artemis’s first stage is expected this year and the landing of the first crew is scheduled for 2024. The program will take place in three stages:
Being the sole natural satellite of our planet and the closest celestial body to earth, the moon has been of interest of space enthusiasts and a window to deeper space exploration. Going ahead, as plans surface about having a base on the moon and discovering its minerals resources, more and more moon expeditions are expected. About eight have already launched mission to the moon. Here’s a timeline of all the moon missions that have taken place globally till now:
This year NASA also marked 55 years of Gemini X that was part of NASA’s Gemini Program, an early NASA human spaceflight program that helped the agency prepare for the Apollo lunar landings. Ten crew flew missions on the two-man Gemini spacecraft in 1965 and 1966. The primary goals of Project Gemini included proving the techniques required for the Apollo Program.
The first seven Gemini missions in 1965 and early 1966 demonstrated the spacecraft’s space worthiness, the feasibility of spacewalking, extended flight durations to 14 days, and demonstrated space rendezvous and docking techniques. The goals of the three-day Gemini X mission included docking with one target vehicle, conducting a rendezvous with a second target, and performing two spacewalks.