Space exploration and calamities

It has been 48 years since man last walked on the moon. That was during the Apollo-17 Mission of December 1972. The US Space Agency, Nasa, is planning a new set of manned missions but there will postponements due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Project Artemis is supposed to put a human exploration team on the moon in 2024. After that, a permanent manned space station would be put into lunar orbit and then, using technologies developed during Artemis, a manned mission to Mars is on the cards.

However, the pandemic will lead to postponements. Most Nasa employees and contractors are working from home and it has shut down two key test centres. Work from home is not really optimal in space exploration. Designs incorporate multiple components sourced from all over, and there must be brutally stringent tests.

Work has been suspended at Michoud, New Orleans, where the moon rocket Orion and space launch system is being designed. The Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where the rocket booster is to be tested, is also closed.

This will delay Project Artemis, maybe well beyond 2024. The primary mission objective is simple: Nasa will put “the first woman and the next man” on the lunar surface, with new technology to explore it.

In the five decades since Apollo 17, there have been huge advances in electronics, computing, communication technology, solar power, etc. A 2020 smartphone is millions of times more powerful than the Apollo guidance computers! So there could be big advances in understanding if these are deployed in manned lunar research.

Artemis has a complex timeline. The first unmanned Orion rocket was to be launched in April 2021 to put multiple satellites into orbit. That Artemis 1 launch will be delayed. In October 2021, the Artemis 7 Lander was also due for demonstration.

The Lander was to be flown to the moon on a Falcon-9 rocket, designed by SpaceX. Artemis 7 is being built by Draper Laboratories, to specifications and design by the Japanese company, ispace. Draper has named it “Artemis 7” because the aerospace company was been involved in six Apollo missions. SpaceX is also behind schedule in rocket development and so apparently, is the lander.

The Artemis 2 launch was scheduled for late 2022. This is to be a crewed orbit of the moon. In 2023, the HakuroR Rover, which is also a Draper-ispace collaboration is to be demonstrated. Once again, this will be carried by a Falcon-9 rocket. Incidentally the rover, and the lander, were both originally developed to compete in Google’s Lunar X competition.

The culmination of the project would be the Artemis 3 launch which was supposed to be in 2024. That would carry a crewed mission to land, rove and explore the moon, before it returns. A manned Mars mission will be far more challenging in many ways. The moon is just 384,000 kms away, while Mars, at its closest to Earth, is 55 million kms away.

The Lunar Gateway Space Station is another ambitious project. The gateway is a small spaceship in orbit around the moon with living quarters, a research lab, ports to dock spacecraft, etc. Nasa had originally proposed to build a reusable three-stage lander with an ascent module, descent module, and transfer module — all to be assembled at the gateway. However it is now reverting to the more familiar concept of a descent-ascent vehicle and Project Lunar Gateway will be delayed.

One of the more interesting aspects of Nasa’s philosophy is, open tenders, as befits a government organisation. Indeed, space pioneer John Glenn once confessed, “As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind - every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder!”

Project Artemis is buttressed by the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. Corporates have been invited to bid on delivering payloads, from the Earth to the Moon. Early missions will perform science experiments, test technologies and demonstrate capabilities to explore the Moon and prepare for human missions. The first two deliveries for Nasa payloads to the Moon were targeted to launch in July 2021.

There are multiple other lunar missions on the agenda of various agencies. There is India’s Chandrayaan 3, which will again attempt an unmanned soft-landing. China is looking at some robotic missions, followed by a crewed mission in the 2030s. Japan and Russia also have crewed missions on the agenda, though neither has a clear timeline.

Although the pandemic has led to a postponement, the fear of such global calamities is one of the factors driving space exploration. Setting up viable colonies in space may seem like science fiction but it is a goal worth aiming for. Even a space-based facility that can safely store DNA could be a failsafe for biodiversity in a time of climate change.

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