The Countdown Begins For Humanity’s Return To The Moon

17:12 minutes

zoomed-in photograph of an unmanned rocket on the launch pad showing just the top portion, with the moon looming in the background
The Moon looms behind the Space Launch System Rocket on the launch pad. Credit: NASA.

NASA’s largest and most powerful rocket ever began inching its way to Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Tuesday night.

Over twelve years in the making, the long-delayed, over-budget Space Launch System rocket is finally nearing its first chance for liftoff at the end of this month. The August 29th targeted launch will mark the beginning of the Artemis program—NASA’s series of missions designed to send humans to the Moon and, eventually, Mars.

The multi-billion dollar orange rocket now stands taller than the Statue of Liberty, resembling a colossal upside-down carrot. Its maiden uncrewed flight will carry a trio of mannequins equipped with radiation sensor vests in preparation for crewed flights slated for 2024. These future missions will be the first to return people to the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972.

NASA named the program Artemis after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, but humanity’s journey to the Moon will look a bit different this time around. While Apollo focused on American ingenuity and geopolitical power, Artemis embraces a new level of international and commercial partnership. It also plans to land the first woman and person of color on the Moon.

Ira talks with Dr. Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist at NASA, about the Artemis generation of space exploration.

Want to follow along? Watch a live broadcast of the event through NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

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Segment Guests

Jacob Bleacher

Jacob Bleacher is the Chief Exploration Scientist at NASA in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

It’s been more than 54 years since Apollo 8 circled the Moon with three astronauts, in preparation for the first Moon landing. You may recall that iconic Earthrise photo taken by Bill Anders.

Well, on August 29, NASA will try to circle the Moon again. To mark the beginning of the Artemis program, it’s NASA’s long awaited series of missions designed to send humans back to the Moon. This time, though, no humans. The mission will carry two phantom women dummies, testing out an anti-radiation vest.

In Greek mythology, Artemis is Apollo’s twin sister. But this visit to the Moon will be no mirror image of the last. Artemis relies on a new level of international and commercial partnership. It also plans to land the first woman and person of color on the Moon.

Joining me to talk about the Artemis generation of space exploration is Jacob Bleacher, who holds a PhD in geological sciences. He is Chief Exploration Scientist at NASA. Welcome to Science Friday.

JACOB BLEACHER: Yeah. Thanks, Ira, for having me. I’m really excited to be here and talk to you about Artemis, our exciting program to go explore the Moon.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s a good way to begin. Because I can’t help but look at Artemis and think, hmm, going to the Moon. It’s like deja vu all over again. We’ve been there, done that– 50 years ago. We had a Moon Buggy driving around. We collected rock samples. We hit a golf ball or two. In fact, it got so routine after Apollo 17 that NASA decided to spend the money elsewhere, and cancelled the last three Apollo missions.

So what do we have left to prove and improve?

JACOB BLEACHER: Oh, there’s very much that the Moon has yet to tell us about our place in the solar system and the history of the universe. That’s one of the reasons we’re so lucky to have the Moon there. It’s like having a library about the history of the universe right next door. But you’re correct– we did go to the Moon during Apollo.

But I don’t like to think of this as kind of starts and finishes. This is a trajectory, or a path, of exploration that we’re on. We went out to the Moon during Apollo missions, and we landed in a handful of locations on the near side, near the equator of the Moon.

But just like you can’t characterize the entire Earth by only a few spots that you went to one time, you can’t characterize the Moon that way either. But what we did learn was that we had a lot to learn about spending longer periods of time in space. And that’s what led to the International Space Station.

We’ve had astronauts on the Space Station for 20 years continuously. We just passed the two-decade mark. So those folks have taught us a lot about how to survive and live, and even thrive, in the space environment. Which is all critical for us if we want to spend more time on the Moon, and eventually start to think about destinations farther away, like maybe Mars.

We learned from Apollo that we needed to study how to survive. We also have learned from those samples what questions to ask. What is it that the Moon has to tell us? And now, when we go to the Moon, we’re going to the south polar region of the Moon, where no one’s ever been. And it will be very different looking than what we saw from Apollo.

IRA FLATOW: I know that one of the aims of the Artemis mission is to actually create an orbiting space station. And then, is it eventually to build a Moon colony?

JACOB BLEACHER: So Artemis will be our first step in working together– a multinational effort– to be able to spend more and more time out in space. So just like the International Space Station is a collaborative effort, Artemis will be a chance for us to work with partners, work with industry, work with academia, to think about and develop an approach to humanity spending more time out in space, to be able to study complicated processes. We can do that with robots. But there’s a certain aspect of having people there that’s very valuable.

IRA FLATOW: But we’ve got 20 years, as you said, going around the Earth doing these kinds of things. Didn’t we learn enough from all those years doing those things in the Space Station? What would be the bigger questions we have on the Moon?

JACOB BLEACHER: So the Moon is this great place. It doesn’t have an atmosphere like the Earth does. And so on the Moon is evidence about what was going on here on the Earth, for instance, when life started. Big questions that we actually can’t answer by staying here on the Earth.

One of the reasons we’re going to the south pole of the Moon is because, at the poles of the Moon, there are impact craters– basically, holes in the ground where rocks from space have hit the Moon and made a big circle. You can actually see them with your naked eye when you look at the Moon at night. You can see that there are round features on the Moon. Well, those are places where big rocks from space have hit the Moon.

At the polar region, those depressions, those craters, they never see sunlight. And so, from the entire history of the Moon– which spans basically the history of the solar system– it’s been slowly collecting water, volatiles– other volatile elements– from, for instance, comets that may run into the Moon. Maybe even volatiles that were released as it was cooling.

Those volatiles track how the solar system has evolved through the time period that life got a foothold here on the Earth. And if we can get access to that type of material, we can actually start to answer some big questions, and maybe learn how to ask even more questions, about, why are we here? How did we get here? Is this the only place that we are?

Those are the big-level kinds of questions that NASA gets tasked with tackling. And you have to go find that evidence. It’s not readily available here on the Earth.

IRA FLATOW: It’s been reported that last year China and Russia are going to jointly build a Moon base, basically competing with Artemis. Are we in another space race?

JACOB BLEACHER: Well, they could go and build what they want. We are definitely working with other partners globally to go and build research stations as well. Our interest is to go in partnership and get a foothold on the Moon, where we can use that to grow. So we’ll go and we’ll land with some of our first Artemis missions, and come home. The missions won’t be very long, but they’ll help us learn about surviving in the south polar region.

But then, unlike Apollo, our plan is to start putting down infrastructure. So maybe a habitat, or maybe some rovers that can be reused. So that we don’t have to bring the same hardware back each time with us, and we can start to build up. That doesn’t exclude anybody else from doing the same thing. The goal here is to learn about the Moon.

IRA FLATOW: I’ve heard NASA say that their ultimate goal is to go to Mars. I mean, Mars has a whole different atmosphere, a whole different surface. I mean, what can you learn from spending this time on the Moon? Wouldn’t it be better to invest in going to Mars, like the stated mission says?

JACOB BLEACHER: Yeah. So Mars is, as ever, a destination for NASA. It’s one of the places out there in the solar system that does actually still have a little bit of an atmosphere. And it has some of the resources that we might need to be able to survive long periods of time without being able to resupply from the Earth. But it’s really far away.

And so, just like we used the International Space Station over two decades just to learn about the impact on the human body of living in space, we need to learn about living in deep space at the Moon to prepare for that trip to Mars.

Now, the International Space Station in low Earth orbit is protected from the solar wind– the radiation from the sun– by a magnetics field. At the Moon, you’re not always protected in there. And so we can actually start learning about that next step, right? So we learned about surviving in the weightless environment in low-Earth orbit, but still protected from the sun. At the Moon, we’ll learn about how to really survive out in deep space. How do you protect yourself out in that environment? And what is that environment truly like?

So we’ll be able to make measurements and characterize that environment and start to learn what we have to prepare our astronauts for, as well as our hardware to make that trip out to Mars. We’re writing the blueprint now for exploring the solar system. And Mars is certainly part of that blueprint.

IRA FLATOW: As I said, there are a couple of mannequins on this mission, instead of real people. And I think one of the mannequins is wearing a vest to protect from radiation– to study that.

JACOB BLEACHER: That’s correct, yes. So our first Artemis mission, Artemis 1, which could be launching as soon as the end of this month– August– is the first test run of our Space Launch System, which is the big rocket that can push our crew capsule, the Orion, out to the Moon.

Inside the Orion capsule, which will go out and circle around the Moon for this first Artemis mission and then return and splash down here– it’s a checkout of the system– we are doing science the whole time. So we have radiation sensors on the inside of the Orion. We actually have some biology experiments that are looking at, what’s the impact to life science out there beyond low Earth orbit?

But then, what you’re pointing out is we have two mannequins that will be traveling and testing some capabilities to actually protect our astronauts from radiation. So basically, wearing a protective vest. Coupled with the measurements we’re making, we’ll be able to tell how well that attempt is at protecting our astronauts.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, there have not been a lot of people who have set foot on the Moon, but there have been a number. And the more times, it seems, that we send people to walk around on the Moon, the more we are affecting our lunar experiment– are we not? I mean, the people compact the soil. They leave behind human waste. They leave behind our microbiome. Astronauts, walking around, change the environment.

JACOB BLEACHER: Undoubtedly. Yes, there is an impact from astronauts. So one of the things that we try to do, actually, is use robotics as well to help characterize the environment. So we actually have a whole set of robotic landers that are starting to go to the Moon here in the next couple of years. They’ll get there before our astronauts. And they’re going global. So they’re landing in different places. But some of them will be in the south polar region as well.

Some of them are scouting out, looking at the water, trying to help us understand how much of it is there, what status it is, so we can understand if it’s something we can use or if it’s something we can study– what’s the right way to sample it? But we’ll also have measurements there that help characterize what that environment looks like, which is a key measurement to understand before our astronauts get there.

IRA FLATOW: There would be some people who would say, well, why do we send people, then, when we have really good robots who have proven themselves on Mars? And if you’re going to send robots to the Moon, why not just send very smart Martian-like robots, and not have to send the astronauts?

JACOB BLEACHER: Well, yeah. So that’s kind of a much bigger philosophical question. So is humankind going to explore around us in the solar system or not? And I think that the answer to that question is we want to send people to explore. We want to send people to learn if there are other places we can survive in the solar system.

But also, there are certain activities that humans do a much better job at than robots can. So robots are really good at making consistent routine measurements. They can go into places that maybe are more hazardous to humans, if you design them to handle that. But there are also activities that maybe we need that ability for the human cognitive approach to take over.

So if you’re sampling something, for instance, that’s volatile– by nature, the word volatile means that it’s not necessarily stable. And so if you expose ice or water on the surface of the Moon, it will quickly go away. And so you need something to be able to make choices and decisions rapidly. And that only gets more and more difficult as you move farther and farther away– for instance, to Mars.

And Mars, you have at best eight- to 10-minute one-way communications. And it can be up to over 20 minutes. And so, following on your question, you may say, well, maybe you don’t need the people to do that at the Moon because it’s so close. But this is the proving ground that helps us learn how to do this elsewhere in the solar system.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.

What is the timeline of the first landing on the Moon? And what would constitute a successful first mission here of Artemis, as you say, that’s launching at the end of the month?

JACOB BLEACHER: Yeah. So we’re aiming to get our astronauts out to the Moon in what would be Artemis 3 around 2025. But it’s all dependent on what we do learn from this first mission, and then a second mission, Artemis 2, that would actually do the same thing as Artemis 1 but carry astronauts along. So those astronauts won’t land, but they will be part of that mission. It’s kind of like Apollo 8.

You mentioned the Earthrise. These would be the astronauts that are in a very similar seat to those astronauts from Apollo.

What would make Artemis 1 a success is flying all the systems, hopefully flying them in a near-nominal status– that they do what we expect them to do, and they return safely. And anything that’s not nominal– that we are able to understand it. Why did that happen? Get good data that supports an interpretation of what happens so that we can move forward to the next mission.

IRA FLATOW: This is something like a 40-day mission, right? So my question is, why so long? Is it just to prove you can make these maneuvers and get back to Earth?

JACOB BLEACHER: Yeah. Well, first of all, we don’t have the astronauts in there, so we’re not burning hard to get out to the Moon in the minimal amount of time. And we want to collect enough data about the environment that we’re flying through to make sure that our systems are working. So what we really are trying to do is put these systems through a full test.

So an Artemis mission with astronauts goes out with the Orion into what we call a near-rectilinear halo orbit, which is fancy jargon for a big orbit that kind of goes around the poles of the Moon. And the astronauts there in the Orion would then dock with what’s called the Human Landing System. And the Human Landing System will take them down to the surface, and then it will bring them back up to the Orion, and then come home.

And so a whole Artemis mission with crew is not something that you do in only a few days. And so what we’re trying to do with Artemis 1 is mimic the duration of the activities that we’ll do in the environment that our astronauts and hardware will be in, so that we have the right data to know that the systems work well.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we wish you great luck Dr. Bleacher, and everybody else at NASA, in your first orbit back to the Moon.

JACOB BLEACHER: Yeah. Thank you very much. I mean, it’s exciting for us. I hope it’s exciting for everybody. There’s going to be a lot of people watching on with great interest here at the end of the month, as we get ready to launch this rocket.

IRA FLATOW: As I remember from the launching of Apollo, you get to feel it and hear it more than see it. So thank you. Dr. Jacob Bleacher is the Chief Exploration Scientist at NASA.

JACOB BLEACHER: Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: And a special thanks to Mackenzie White for producing this interview. In fact, Mackenzie herself is a planetary scientist. Yes, she joined us this summer as a Mass Media Fellow through the American Association for the Advancement of Science. You heard her work when we covered everything from plant immune systems to our Teen Innovator Series to the first human lunar exploration since Apollo

Thank you, Mackenzie, for your hard work and insightful production. Wishing you good luck in your next endeavor.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About Mackenzie White

Mackenzie White was Science Friday’s 2022 AAAS Mass Media Fellow. Her favorite things to talk about are space rocks and her dog, Rocky.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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