The moon is seeing renewed interest as a destination, both from government space agencies like NASA as well as private companies looking to tap into potential commercial opportunities. However, NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 faces mounting delays even as private moon landers gear up for their first missions.
NASA Struggles With Delays While Private Missions Push Forward
NASA administrator Bill Nelson recently declared that the US would beat China in returning astronauts to the moon. However, NASA’s own Artemis program continues to suffer delays that put the 2024 target date in jeopardy.
The first Artemis mission, an uncrewed test flight of the powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, has already been pushed back multiple times. Most recently, the Artemis I flight was delayed again due to a faulty temperature sensor, and is now targeting a launch no earlier than March 2022. Subsequent crewed Artemis missions rely on the success of this first test, making it critical to keeping the program on schedule.
In contrast, private companies like Intuitive Machines and ispace are powering ahead with their own commercial lunar lander missions with support from NASA. Intuitive Machines still plans to launch its first Nova-C lander mission in early 2024, while ispace just announced a 2024 target for its Mission 2 lander under contract with NASA.
With Artemis struggling under delays, private moon landing capabilities could help the US beat other countries in returning to the moon. Intuitive Machines VP Steve Altemus said the company is “proud to be enabling American boots to return sustainably to the Moon.” Still, successfully landing humans on the moon by 2024 remains an immense challenge for NASA.
lunar lander missions launching soon
|– 1st private lunar landing attempt
– Under NASA CLPS contract
– 6 NASA payloads aboard
|Mission 2 Lander
|– 2nd ispace lunar mission
– Larger lander capacity
– NASA task order awarded
In addition to crewed NASA missions, these private lander missions will expand capabilities for cargo and research deliveries to the moon’s surface.
Strategic Shifts Toward Commercial Partners
NASA relies on contractors and partners in aerospace companies to design and build major hardware components like the SLS rocket. However, the agency is now clearly strategically positioning private space companies to play a key role in returning humans to deep space destinations.
Beyond lunar cargo lander contracts, NASA recently shifted management of the Lunar Gateway space station to be primarily procurement-based via private industry. Space industry analyst Carissa Christensen said this change “reflects the agency’s embrace of commercial partnerships for deep space exploration.”
There are also signs NASA may engage commercial providers for actual lunar lander vehicles to carry astronauts between Gateway and the moon’s surface. NASA put out a call for proposals on human lunar landers to industry partners. Leveraging private capabilities could allow crewed flights sooner than NASA could achieve on its own.
Outlook: Intensifying Race With China
As NASA deliberates shifting more human spaceflight roles to private partners, China continues to achieve key milestones in its own crewed moon program. China recently landed a robotic rover on the far side of the moon, and has designs on sending taikonaut crews to the lunar south pole region later this decade.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said beating China back to the moon is “important geopolitically” as an arena of competition with Beijing. At a December space conference, Nelson urged private space companies to partner with NASA to speed up that timeline: “We’ve got to beat them…My plea to you is: Let’s get going. We want to beat them.”
Given NASA’s continued schedule slips versus SpaceX and other private companies successfully launching advanced rockets and spacecraft, partnerships with industry likely offer the best path to get astronauts back on the moon before China can land their own crewed missions. Contracts for private lunar cargo landers are the first step in this new model. Though landing humans by 2024 still appears a stretch goal, private industry’s progress outpacing NASA’s may provide a small buffer on China’s ambitions in the intensifying moon race between space powers.
What Next? Implications of a Return to the Moon
Successfully returning astronauts to the moon, whether via NASA’s Artemis program or private providers, would mark a monumental achievement. Here is a look at some of the anticipated developments and open questions following a crewed lunar landing mission:
Boosts new focus areas like lunar resource utilization and conversion of resources to fuel or other useful materials using techniques like lunar ISRU (in-situ resource utilization). This could expand economic activities in cislunar space.
Opportunity to validate deep space technologies like long-distance spacecraft communications, radiation shielding, food production, and closed-loop environmental systems. These capabilities would be essential for future human interplanetary missions to Mars.
Geopolitical moves and global power dynamics could shift based on which nations establish a sustained human presence on the moon first. As Administrator Nelson indicated, the US is prioritizing beating China in current and future lunar activities.
Opens questions on governance mechanisms of lunar operations and environmental regulations to preserve unique historical sites like the Apollo landing areas. The Artemis Accords are early steps toward international agreements in this arena.
Though NASA faces ongoing headaches with its Artemis moon plans, capable and ambitious private space firms are stepping up with their own progress toward returning to the moon. With smart leveraging of those industry partnerships, the US may yet establish leadership over Chinese rivals in the great game of lunar exploration and economic expansion into the cosmos.
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