50 years ago, the world was awestruck as the space race fuelled innovation at a speed not yet seen before, resulting in the first human setting foot on the moon just a decade after the first satellite was launched! But as the cold war and threat of nuclear attack fizzled out with the fading US-Russia Rivalry, so did the investment into the space sector. Accompanying this was dwindling public support- somehow, people got bored of seeing men on the moon (maybe if they added a bit more diversity and collaboration it could have continued…), and seeing as the program was entirely government funded, public opinion has a huge say in where funding goes. And going to the moon was EXPENSIVE! There was no such thing as reusable rockets, and it was more of a set of stunts (the most epic and scientifically rewarding stunts of all time, but still) than establishing a long term presence on the moon.
These factors compounded and resulted in the end of the Apollo program, just 3 years after landing for the first time.
It’s not all doom and gloom though- nasa still had funding, and it shifted its concentration to low earth orbit, developing the space shuttle, which carried huge payloads like the Hubble Space Telescope, and eventually the International Space Station! The collaborative nature of the ISS has had immense benefits to the space industry and science in general. Without it, I don’t think we would seriously be planning an imminent return to the moon- oh yeah- NASAs going back to the moon!
What will Artemis look like?
Aptly named after the sister of Apollo and goddess of the moon, the Artemis mission series was officially announced in 2019, but has been in the pipeline for years under many names, though the skeleton of the programme has stayed intact despite the constant funding and policy changes. It builds on the systems proved and relationships formed in low earth orbit:
- NASA will oversee the missions, make the SLS rocket (in partnership with Boeing) and Orion Capsule (in partnership with Lockheed Martin) to reach the moon, amongst other things.
- ESA will build the service module of Orion
- Commercial companies will build the lunar lander (the shortlist is currently SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics… but Dynetics is the favourite to win, despite being less famous)
- and they will all work together, along with the Canadian & Japanese Space Agencies, to build the lunar gateway, which is essentially ISS 2.0, orbiting the moon.
- Space X will continue to provide capsules for orbital resupply
This collaboration moulded our sustainable presence in orbit around the earth, so it makes sense to use a similar system for our return to the moon. It also shares the investment between multiple companies, so the program isn’t totally reliant on one player and is more economically sustainable. As you can see, private space companies are becoming an ever more integral part of the space arena (omg I’m now imagining sports in space how cool would that be?!) and they have played a pivotal role in modernising space exploration. Competition fuels innovation- we saw that with the first space race between 2 superpowers, and now between the super rich.
The Artemis Astronauts
The ISS celebrated its 20th anniversary of continuous human presence in space in November this year. It’s been visited by over 240 astronaut’s from 19 countries! But male astronauts remain over-represented in the cohort. This is improving, but out of the 240, only 34 were women. It’s not that NASA is outrightly, consciously discriminating against women (they used to, but we’ve come quite a long way since the 60s, even if some people’s attitudes might not be), but a complex combination of factors, including a lack of role models, bias in employment, and the fact that space travel has historically been designed for men… despite the fact that women could be better suited to long term spaceflight!
Last week NASA announced the 18 astronauts set to be the first to land on the moon for the first time in 50 years- and exactly half are women. This Artemis Team couldn’t be more different to the Apollo era astronauts- it’s refreshing to see such a diverse team returning to the moon, including the first Puerto Rican astronaut, and the first African American astronaut to live on the ISS (victor glover).
One echo of the Apollo era remains: over ¼ of the Artemis astronaut’s were test pilots, and ⅔ have some military background. I wonder if this pattern remains solely because test pilots have developed the qualities needed in an astronaut, or if those who want to become astronaut’s go down the engineer/test pilot route *because* the original Mercury 7 and Apollo era astronauts were test pilots! The experience level of the 18 varies drastically- for some the artemis missions may be their first flight, whereas others (like Christina Koch and Joe Acaba) have racked up over 300 days in space each! Check out all the stats by clicking through the carousel below.
The Artemis Accords
Businesses and governments are now realising that the economic and political power that rests in space is no longer science fiction, but a real possibility. In response, we should be facilitating discussions on the laws, regulations, and how to access the space in an ethical and sustainable way. This means involving policy makers, so space lawyer has become a real occupation!
The Artemis Accords are the most recent set of agreements to set the standards for returning to the moon. It includes principles like:
- Transparency- make all information about policy/plans, and any scientific data, publicly available, as well as registering any objects to go to the moon
- Peaceful Exploration and Deconfliction- aka don’t go to war in space or maliciously interfere with a mission
- Preservation of Space Heritage- clearing up orbital debris and protecting sites of historical interest
- Utilization of Space Resources- in a way that benefits all and is sustainable, and using systems that are interoperable (work together)
Basically, it asks for compliance to the Outer Space Treaty, however it skirts around the issue of space mining, saying resource use should be in line with international law, despite the US having its own, conflicting policy on this. This, amongst other things, has led to some believing it is too US-centric, and will allow the US to be the ultimate gatekeeper on the moon. Right now, this is only really a cause for concern to the other large space agencies, Roscosmos (Russia) and CNSA (China), who also happen to be America’s greatest adversaries. They may not have signed it, but it has been signed by lots of other space agencies, including the UKSA, so that we too can directly benefit from and take part in the program!
Overall, I think the Artemis Accords is a decent policy to follow, in order for the program to live up to the goals set for a sustainable, cooperative return to the moon. With the first missions set for November 2021, the next decade is looking to be an exciting one!