In 1969, people all over the world watched as Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the Moon. The historic landing came only eight years after US President John F. Kennedy announced the ambitious goal. In the following three years, six more crewed missions were launched, five of which reached the Moon. Since Apollo 17 landed on the Moon in 1972, however, no more human beings have walked on the lunar surface. Many robotic probes have been launched, but of the 51 years since that first successful mission the last 48 have been without a crewed lunar mission.
This year NASA intends to change that. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has announced several ambitious projects in the past few years, including a recent mission to send Tom Cruise to space. The new Artemis project is one of those projects. In Greek mythology, Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon, while Apollo was god of the Sun. It is unclear why the original 1970s Moon missions were named after the sun god, but at least NASA is settling on a thematically appropriate naming convention this time around. According to NASA, the Artemis program aims to land a crew of astronauts, including at least one woman, on the Moon by 2024 and establish a sustainable base on the Moon by 2028.
This new mission puts a lot more focus on the bigger picture than the original Apollo stations. NASA wants to build a habitable space station in lunar orbit called Gateway, which they describe as being like the International Space Station but smaller. Gateway will allow astronauts to “commute” between the Moon’s surface and the station, perhaps even staying in Gateway for up to three months while working on the lunar surface. This would allow astronauts to conduct multiple lunar landings while only going through one huge rocket launch to and from Earth, a process which is expensive and time-consuming. NASA also states that one of the main missions of the Artemis program is to reach Mars, mining the Moon to extract fuel for Mars rockets and providing a lunar launch base for the longer Martian trip. This would be useful as the Moon barely has an atmosphere and has weaker gravity than Earth, making it much easier to launch larger rockets from the Moon. In theory, astronauts could launch from Earth to the Moon in a small crew capsule and then board a much larger, livable rocket on the Moon for the long haul to Mars, saving NASA resources and mitigating the risk of a big launch.
To go along with the ambitious plan, NASA has also announced the Artemis Accords, regulations for peaceful multinational exploration of outer space that reinforce the rules of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. NASA calls the accords “Principles for a Safe, Peaceful, and Prosperous Future.” It is worth noting that there is no evidence of these Accords having been negotiated or even discussed with other countries before the official announcement, although the US government is apparently now encouraging foreign nations to agree to the terms. It appears that NASA is simply dictating these accords and hoping other countries to sign on, something which seems unlikely. The main points of the Artemis Accords are as follows:
- Peaceful Purposes
- Emergency Assistance
- Registration of Space Objects
- Release of Scientific Data
- Protecting Heritage
- Space Resources
- Deconfliction of Activities
- Orbital Degree and Spacecraft Disposal
The Accords are noticeably light on actual treaty language. Each of the above points has an image and perhaps a paragraph of text, with the whole statement capped with a paragraph of introduction. The official Accords PDF is formatted like a Google Slides presentation, and the Accords give no clear mechanism by which these rules can be followed or by which they will be enforced. These rules appear to be more of an idealistic vision than actual law, something which may be true of the Artemis program itself. This is not the first time that NASA has advocated for a crewed lunar mission since 1972, and none of the previous plans have actually made it into space. Nevertheless, the new Artemis program is exciting to follow and we can only hope that it actually happens this time.