The future of space exploration is here
After decades of diminishing public interest in space travel, the iconic National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has plans to return to the Moon by 2024 and partner with privately-run newcomers like SpaceX and Blue Origin to transform the way humanity interacts with our solar system.
On July 20 we celebrate a huge anniversary, 50 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin captured the imagination of an entire generation by stepping foot on the Moon. Only six subsequent missions also touched down on the Moon and the last was in 1972.
Both funding and interest waned in the decades to follow, and NASA turned its attention to the Space Shuttle Program and the International Space Station (ISS), but that’s all about to change as plans are in motion for new deep-space missions.
Earlier this month I had the privilege of watching Orion’s Ascent Abort System successfully tested from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Orion is NASA’s new spacecraft designed to send crews further than ever before. This test was a significant step towards returning to the Moon and ensured astronaut safety is paramount.
Shortly after the test launch, Astronaut Nick Hague, who currently resides on the ISS, tweeted: “As someone who has had his life saved by a launch abort system, I can attest that today was a truly significant milestone in the #Artemis program.”
For the Orion Ascent Abort Test on July 2, a model of Orion was launched 31,000 feet at Mach 1.3 (over 1,000 miles an hour). At that altitude the abort motor fired 400,000 pounds of thrust to propel the Orion away from the rocket. Simultaneously 12 orange data devices ejected from the model and collected data on temperature, pressure and acoustics. In the end it only lasted three minutes, but was a green light for engineers.
The Orion spacecraft will sit atop NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket ever built, designed with deep-space destinations and larger cargo holds in mind. The mission call sign Artemis 1, named for the goddess of the Moon and Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, will bring the next man and first woman to the lunar surface.
The Artemis mission is poised to shatter a ton of records: the first woman on the moon, the first mission landing on the Moon’s South Pole, and the first sustainable human presence on the moon by 2028 through the help of private industry.
NASA is also eyeing a human mission to Mars, yet more research needs to be done on protecting the crew from extreme heat and radiation, and even how to store enough air, food and water for the nine month trip. With the orbiting positions of Earth and Mars constantly shifting, NASA scientists also need to pinpoint the exact route and launch window to facilitate such a trip.
This is an exciting time for the space program. Many of the young people coming-of-age now, witnessing the origins of Orion, will be the ones developing the new ideas and technology to achieve what used to be considered science fiction.