A New Era of Moon Exploration Is Upon Us

On February 22nd, a robotic lander named Odysseus touched down on the sun-washed highlands near the south pole of the moon. It was the first time since the Apollo 17 mission, fifty-two years ago, that an American spacecraft had gracefully landed on the lunar surface. And yet NASA hadn’t designed or built Odysseus; it was renting space onboard. Intuitive Machines, a relatively small aerospace firm based in Houston, was responsible for the lander, which launched atop a SpaceX rocket. The event was historic not just because it signalled a return to the moon but because it was the first time that a private company from any country had landed a spacecraft there. It won’t be the last: Odysseus marks the beginning of a new, relentless, and open-ended campaign of robotic and crewed lunar exploration. The program is called Artemis.

There are lots of reasons to return to the lunar surface. Some planetary scientists want to learn more about the history of the early solar system; the moon is useful in this regard because, unlike the Earth, it has a surface that is ancient and pristine. Some companies want to build private mining operations there. Tourists want to go and take selfies. All or none of these things may come to pass, and they don’t necessarily make a coherent picture. I’ve covered the American space program for more than a decade, and my over-all impression is that NASA wants to go to the moon because it wants to go to the moon. For the past fifty years, it has been trying to get back there. Any reason anyone wants to cite will do just fine.

Previous attempts to return to the moon have failed; this time, however, NASA actually seems poised to achieve its goals. It has “rideshare” payloads of scientific equipment booked on four other robotic missions that are slated to touch down on the moon this year alone. In 2025, it plans to fly astronauts around the moon and back; the rocket and crew capsule for that mission have already been built. In 2026, SpaceX, on behalf of NASA, aims to land astronauts on the lunar south pole, and also to launch a new international space station called Gateway, which will orbit the moon. Similar in design to the International Space Station, Gateway will be an expandable environment for staging crew and cargo, allowing for “high-tempo” lunar operations. Much of the hardware for Gateway’s first module has already been manufactured.

In 2028, NASA hopes to fly a team of astronauts to Gateway. The following year, the organization aims to have a different group explore the lunar surface by means of an advanced “lunar-terrain vehicle”—the first of two. If its Artemis missions all go according to plan, within a decade, people will live and work from a permanent, fission-powered outpost on the moon. Privately operated robots will cudgel and carve the lunar landscape, scooping up and recycling any useful material.

There is an element of the fantastic to all this, and, if NASA were going it alone, Artemis would have grim prospects. But the agency has offloaded much of the program—especially its robotic missions—onto the private sector. A company called Axiom Space is building the spacesuits; NASA will pay to use them. Several companies, including Nissan and General Motors, are vying to build the lunar-terrain vehicle. SpaceX and Blue Origin are building the landers, which will transport astronauts from Gateway to the surface. NASA has underwritten all this private R. & D. by committing to using everyone’s hardware, but just about any person, business, or country will be able to rent the equipment.

Historically, for large human spaceflight projects, NASA has worked with industry through “cost-plus” contracts: A prime contractor bids on a project, and NASA covers the costs of its development and also guarantees that the contractor will not lose money, regardless of whether the final price exceeds the bid price. Contractors, having little incentive to deliver on budget, behave accordingly. Established aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing thrived for decades on such deals. But persistent cost overruns during its development phase nearly led to the cancellation of the International Space Station, and doomed the George W. Bush Administration’s Constellation program, which planned crewed missions to the moon and to Mars.

In 2004, after it announced that it would retire the space shuttle, NASA began to move toward a commercial-services model, which runs on fixed-price contracts. The bid is the bid, and the contractor doesn’t get a dollar extra—the more efficient the service, the larger the profit. The model’s greatest success story by far has been SpaceX. Four hundred million dollars laid the groundwork for not only a fleet of reusable rockets but also heavy-lift capabilities, in the form of the Falcon Heavy and, later, the Starship rocket, which is now the foundation of the agency’s lunar aspirations. (For comparison, the Ares I rocket, conceived under the old cost-plus system, was not reusable and cost NASA several billion dollars to develop; only one prototype flew before the Obama Administration canceled it.) By some estimates, SpaceX has reduced the typical cost of a launch by a factor of three. Transformative technologies, such as the satellite-Internet system Starlink, have also emerged from its labs.

With Artemis, NASA has wagered that the commercial-services model will work for lunar landings as well. The agency is paying SpaceX and Blue Origin each about three billion dollars to build landing vehicles to carry humans. In comparison, the Apollo 11 lander cost more than twenty billion, adjusted for inflation. For robotic missions, in 2018, the space organization started a three-billion-dollar program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services, which guarantees companies that want to land equipment and sensors on the moon at least one passenger: the United States government. For both human and robotic vehicles, the hope is that other organizations will pay for rides as well, kick-starting an economy at the moon.

The Artemis missions will land at the lunar south pole, which is a more difficult target than the equatorial regions used during the Apollo era, but a potentially more lucrative one for private industry. Because of the relative positions of the sun and moon, there are craters around the south pole whose bottoms have never seen sunlight. For eons, any water that might have accumulated there will have been preserved as ice. If companies can extract this ice, any permanent human presence on the lunar surface will have instant access to water. Lunar refineries could separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms of water molecules, then possibly use them to create breathable air and rocket fuel—resources that are enormously expensive to send from Earth. Private companies could also prospect for rare materials, Old West style. On the moon, there’s gold in them hills, not just metaphorically but literally.

All this is the best-case, far-future outcome. Moon mining, whether for water or rare-earth metals, remains science fiction today, and tends to give pause to casual observers, who imagine looking up, horrified, at a strip-mined lunar surface. Arguably, such destruction would be the most outsized achievement in human history: the total landmass of the moon is about the same as Asia. The Odysseus lander is a little wider than a hot-dog stand. We have a ways to go.

The Artemis effort is only possible because, in 2020, seven countries joined the United States in signing the Artemis Accords, a nonbinding, multilateral framework for exploring space. Among other things, the accords are a statement of values about such things as the importance of sharing scientific data; preserving historically significant human and robotic landing sites; and upholding the Outer Space Treaty, which endorses the peaceful use of celestial bodies. The Artemis Accords don’t allow anyone to claim land on the moon—but they do set up “safety zones,” where countries do not interfere with each others’ operations.

“It is fundamentally an entry point for any nation to raise its hand and say, ‘I believe in what Artemis is doing, and I want to be a part of it,’ ” Casey Dreier, the chief of space policy for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space-advocacy group, told me. The “brilliance” of the Artemis Accords, he went on, is that they expand what might have been a NASA-exclusive project into a serious international endeavor. “It has become a program of the State Department, and something by which you can leverage relationships, create new relationships, and deepen relationships,” Dreier said.

Large contributors to the Artemis program will have a chance to see their astronauts walk on the moon. But a small signatory like Rwanda, which lacks the aerospace infrastructure or finances of a larger country, could partake in lunar glory as well, perhaps by contributing ground-based components. The accords are designed to loosen the gears of bureaucracy in places that have not historically invested in space or aerospace industries.

In the past five years, ten nations have flown or joined more than twenty missions to the moon, half of which were successful. All of the countries involved were Artemis signatories except two: Russia and China, the latter of which arguably has the most capable lunar program today. By the end of December, 2024, the number of missions could reach thirty. This high cadence partially reflects the fact that the rest of the world is catching up with the NASA of the nineteen-sixties; lunar exploration is now a feasible national pursuit that can pay scientific and technological dividends. But the flurry of missions also flows from the fact that space exploration is a geopolitical exercise. The world is converging on the lunar south pole because NASA is inviting them there, and seems itself serious about staying.

“The missing piece in previous attempts to return to the moon was an international component,” Dreier told me. The International Space Station paved the way, by showing how a program like Artemis might work, and demonstrating the good will and momentum that it might create. Now countries are spending real money and political capital on Artemis. For NASA to change its mind and not go to the moon would be an international scandal—which is exactly how the agency wants it.

Odysseus wasn’t America’s first post-Apollo attempt to land on the moon. On January 18th, debris from the Peregrine lander, flown by the Pittsburgh-based firm Astrobotic Technology, crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The company suspects that a ruptured propellant tank caused damage to the spacecraft; after it spent ten days in orbit, Astrobotic ordered its destruction for safety reasons.

A long-running criticism of NASA is its aversion to risk. That aversion makes sense: whenever the agency fails at anything, there is a perception that it’s not just NASA but the U.S. as a whole that has failed. But, when Peregrine crashed, there was little blowback. It was Astrobotic’s lander that had failed, not NASA’s. There is great value in such reputational protection. It allows NASA to start taking risks again—something inherently necessary for a sustainable lunar program.

“This is a massive experiment we’re running,” Dreier said, referring to the commercial aspect of the project. “No one’s tried it before, and there’s a reason, because the moon is a very hard place to operate.” Will Artemis succeed? Will people really be living on the moon for extended periods within a decade? “I don’t think anyone knows if NASA’s plan for extending a low-Earth-orbit type of marketplace to the moon will work,” he said. “This is ahistorical. But it is a useful and valuable experiment—and that’s actually a perfectly appropriate thing for NASA to be doing.”

Source: Intuitive Machines

A month after Peregrine’s loss, the Odysseus lander launched atop a SpaceX rocket. On February 22nd, Intuitive Machines sent instructions for it to descend to the lunar surface; though it landed softly enough to survive, engineers later determined that it did so harder than intended and slid, breaking one of its six legs. The spacecraft stood upright for a moment, and then tipped onto its side, with little loss to its scientific payload. For the next week, Odysseus returned scientific data back to Earth for analysis.

During its descent toward an area near the lunar south pole, Odysseus sent mission control an image of itself. The four words emblazoned on its gold insulation described better than any policy document how American space exploration has changed since the country’s last moon landing, in 1972. Up top were the words “Intuitive Machines”; then, “Columbia,” denoting the sportswear company, which had manufactured the thermal blanket protecting the fuel tank. “NASA” was spelled out in small letters beneath. ♦

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