In the name of science? Why go back to the moon

The SLS rocket with an Orion capsule, which is part of the Artemis 1 mission, stands ready for the second launch attempt at Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Merrit Island, Florida on September 3, 2022. NASA will attempt to launch the mission Artemis 1 for the second time after the first attempt was postponed on August 29 due to an engine problem which was identified and corrected. Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich, EPA-EFE

On September 12, 1962, then-US President John F. Kennedy informed the public of his plans to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

It was the height of the Cold War and America needed a big victory to demonstrate its space superiority after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite and put the first man in orbit.

“We chose to go to the moon,” Kennedy told 40,000 people at Rice University, “because this challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we don’t want to postpone, and one we we intend to win.”

Sixty years later, the United States is about to launch the first mission of its return program to the Moon, Artemis. But why repeat what has already been done?

Criticism has grown in recent years, for example from Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins and Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin, who have long advocated for America to go directly to Mars.

But NASA maintains that reclaiming the Moon is a must before a trip to the Red Planet. Here’s why.

– Long space missions –

NASA wants to develop a sustainable human presence on the Moon, with missions lasting several weeks – compared to just a few days for Apollo.

The objective: to better understand how to prepare a multi-year round trip to Mars.

In deep space, the radiation is much more intense and poses a real threat to health.

Low Earth orbit, where the International Space Station (ISS) operates, is partly protected from radiation from the Earth’s magnetic field, which is not the case on the Moon.

From the first Artemis mission, many experiments are planned to study the impact of this radiation on living organisms, and to assess the effectiveness of an anti-radiation vest.

Moreover, while the ISS can often be resupplied, trips to the Moon – a thousand times further – are much more complex.

To avoid having to take everything with them, and to save money, NASA wants to learn how to use the resources present on the surface.

In particular, water in the form of ice, which has been confirmed to exist at the lunar south pole, could be turned into rocket fuel by cracking it into its separate hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

– Testing new gear –

NASA also wants to pilot technologies on the Moon that will continue to evolve on Mars. First, new spacesuits for spacewalks.

Their design has been entrusted to the company Axiom Space for the first mission to land on the Moon, in 2025 at the earliest.

Other needs: vehicles – pressurized and non-pressurized – for the astronauts to move around in, as well as habitats.

Finally, for sustainable access to an energy source, NASA is working on the development of portable nuclear fission systems.

Solving the problems that arise will be much easier on the Moon, only days away, than on Mars, which cannot be reached for at least several months.

– Establishing a waypoint –

A major pillar of the Artemis program is the construction of a space station in orbit around the Moon, dubbed Gateway, which will serve as a relay before the trip to Mars.

All the necessary equipment can be sent there in “multiple launches”, before finally being joined by the crew to set off on the long journey, explained to AFP Sean Fuller, head of the Gateway program.

“Kind of like stopping at your gas station to make sure you have everything you need, then you’re off again.”

– Maintaining leadership in China –

Apart from Mars, another reason given by the Americans for settling on the Moon is to do so before the Chinese, who plan to send taikonauts there by 2030.

China is now the main competitor to the United States as the once proud Russian space program has collapsed.

“We don’t want China suddenly coming in and saying, ‘This is our exclusive territory,'” NASA boss Bill Nelson said in a recent interview.

– For the sake of science –

While the Apollo missions have brought nearly 400 kilograms of lunar rock back to Earth, new samples will further deepen our knowledge of this celestial object and its formation.

“The samples we collected during the Apollo missions changed the way we see our solar system,” astronaut Jessica Meir told AFP. “I think we can expect that from the Artemis program as well.”

She also expects new scientific and technological breakthroughs, just like in the days of Apollo.

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