Houston, We Have a Problem
Callum Dinnett discusses the obstacles NASA face in their attempt to achieve another giant leap for mankind
In the midst of all the craziness of 2020, you may not have realised that back in July we passed the 51st anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking humanity’s first steps on the moon as part of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission. However, NASA’s next expedition to our celestial neighbour may face some significant delays.
Named after the Greek goddess of the Moon and twin sister of Apollo, the Artemis program in its current form remains ambitious both socially, aiming to put the first woman on the moon, and technologically, involving the creation of NASA’s most powerful rocket to date, called the Space Launch System. There are also plans for an outpost named Gateway to orbit the moon, which will act as both support for longer-term lunar missions, and a staging ground for manned deep-space exploration.
There are also plans for an outpost named Gateway to orbit the moon, […] a staging ground for manned deep-space exploration.
NASA had originally planned the first manned mission of the Artemis program to take place in 2028 but was instructed by the White House administration in 2019 to aim for a 2024 deadline. Despite this, in a report by the space agency’s Office of Inspector General released in November, it’s been stated that NASA would be “hard-pressed” to reach this goal. A significant chunk of these difficulties stem from the coronavirus pandemic, which has meant that 18 of NASA’s major facilities have had to close.
the coronavirus pandemic […] has meant that 18 of NASA’s major facilities have had to close.
Although the pandemic has undoubtedly been a major contributor to these delays, there is also a political element. NASA’s funding is highly dependent on contributions from governmental branches, and a recent Senate bill reveals the space agency is set to receive less than half of the funding they had requested for the appropriate development. The US election result is also bound to have an effect on NASA’s progress as president-elect Joe Biden’s Democratic party has stated they intend to “support Nasa’s work to return Americans to the moon and go beyond to Mars”, but are yet to confirm any deadlines.
Even if NASA were to change priorities, this wouldn’t necessarily mark the end of the Artemis program. Spaceflight is an international endeavour, with agencies from Canada, Europe, and Japan all formally involved in the construction of Gateway. So, while the prospect of humans returning to the moon remains very real, exactly when we may be heading back is still in question.