US astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag on the moon's surface. Photo: NASA/AFP
US astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag on the moon's surface. Photo: NASA/AFP

US President Donald Trump directed NASA to land American astronauts on the Moon by 2024, and the agency is working to accelerate humanity’s return to the lunar surface by all means necessary. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed that the agency’s proposed human lunar-landing system architecture would be a public-private partnership working directly with American companies to expedite the return of astronauts to the Moon.

In order to best accomplish these goals in the next five years, NASA says it will go to the Moon in two phases. First, it will put the next man, and first woman, on the Moon by 2024. Second, it will establish sustainable missions by 2028; to do that, it needs the powerful Space Launch System to put reusable systems in deep space.

To accelerate its return to the Moon, NASA is challenging the traditional ways of doing business. It will streamline everything from procurement and partnerships to hardware development and operations. On May 13, the White House submitted an amendment to the FY 2020 budget request to help NASA implement a sustainable, open, long-term program of lunar exploration. Three days later, NASA announced that the agency has selected 11 companies to conduct studies and produce prototypes of human landers for its new lunar exploration program. This effort will help put American astronauts on the Moon’s south pole by 2024 and establish sustainable missions by 2028.

NASA’s new mission to the Moon has been named Artemis, after the ancient Greek goddess who was the daughter of Zeus and Leto. Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology. Now, she personifies America’s path to the Moon as the name of NASA’s program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. When they land, American astronauts will set foot where no human has ever been before: the Moon’s south pole. Working with US companies and international partners, NASA will push the boundaries of human exploration forward.

As a result of Artemis, NASA will be able to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028, enabling it to make new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements, and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy. With NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars, Artemis is the first step to begin this next era of exploration. The Artemis team is excited to get back to the Moon quickly as possible, and the public/private partnerships to study human landing systems are an important step in that process.

NASA is building a spacecraft to take astronauts to deep space that will usher in a new era of space exploration. Orion will take humans farther than NASA has ever gone before, and dock with a small spaceship that will orbit the Moon called the Gateway. The spacecraft will carry up to four crew members and is designed to support astronauts traveling hundreds of thousands of kilometers from home. Both distance and duration require Orion to have systems that can reliably operate far from home, be capable of keeping astronauts alive in case of emergencies and still be light enough that a rocket can launch it.

NASA’s Space Launch System is a powerful, advanced rocket for a new era of human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit. With unprecedented power capabilities, the SLS will launch astronauts aboard the agency’s Orion spacecraft on missions to explore deep space. The SLS is designed to safely send humans to deep space and can support a variety of complex missions. It will also open new possibilities for payloads, including robotic scientific missions to Mars.

NASA’s proposed plan is to transport astronauts in a human landing system that includes a transfer element for the journey from the lunar Gateway to low-lunar orbit, a descent element to carry them to the surface, and an ascent element to return them to the Gateway.

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NASA has also selected three commercial Moon-landing service providers that will deliver science and technology payloads under Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) as part of the Artemis program. Each commercial lander will carry NASA-provided payloads that will conduct scientific investigations and demonstrate advanced technologies on the lunar surface, paving the way for NASA astronauts to land on the lunar surface by 2024.

The Artemis team is also working to design and develop the Gateway. This spaceship will be a temporary home for astronauts, just about a five-day, 400,000-kilometer commute from Earth. The Gateway will have living quarters, laboratories, docking ports for visiting spacecraft, and more. It will give NASA and its partners access to more of the lunar surface than ever before, supporting both human and robotic missions. The Gateway will be the home base for astronaut expeditions on the Moon, and future human missions to Mars.

Astronauts will visit the Gateway at least once a year, but they won’t stay year-round like the crew aboard the International Space Station. The Gateway is much smaller, as its interior is about the size of a studio apartment. Once docked, astronauts can live and work aboard the spaceship for up to three months at a time, conduct scientific experiments, and take trips to the surface of the Moon. Even without a crew present, cutting-edge robots and computers will conduct experiments inside and outside the spaceship, automatically sending data back to Earth.

NASA wants the Gateway to be a new place for human exploration and it has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the international space community, which sees it as important for expanding humanity’s presence deeper into the solar system, including to the Moon and Mars. Even before America’s first trip to Mars, astronauts will use the Gateway to train for life far away from Earth, and they will use it to practice moving a spaceship in different orbits in deep space.

NASA wants the Gateway to be a new place for human exploration and it has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the international space community

NASA is looking at options for astronauts to shuttle between the Gateway and the Moon on reusable landers. Just like at an airport, spacecraft bound for the lunar surface or for Mars can use the Gateway to refuel or replace parts and obtain food and oxygen without going home. For months-long crew expeditions to the Gateway, this could allow multiple trips down to the lunar surface, and exploration of new locations across the Moon.

Some elements of the Gateway are already under construction at NASA centers across the United States and at commercial partner facilities. The Gateway will be assembled in space, incrementally, using the Orion spacecraft and the SLS, as well as commercial launch vehicles. The first element, providing power and propulsion, will launch in 2022. By going to the Moon, America continues to obtain new insights into how the universe works. By returning to the Moon, we anticipate learning even more about our past, and equally importantly, obtaining a glimpse into our future.

The Artemis team leads an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities. Its future space exploration plans include going to the Moon to stay and then traveling on to Mars. The Moon provides the opportunity to accomplish transformational science in understanding the origin and evolution of the solar system. In exploration, it’s a place for learning how to live and work on a planetary surface and is the next important test-bed for a Mars transportation system.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in July 2019, NASA is moving forward to the Moon. Over the next decade, NASA will build an open exploration architecture with as many capabilities that can be replicated as possible for missions to Mars.

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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