NASA’s Apollo moon program wasn’t sustainable, but with commercial space, Artemis can be

Intuitive Machines prepares to launch robotic moon mission from Florida in 2022

Americans have not stepped foot on the moon in nearly 50 years, but that’s going to change very soon.

This week on “Space Curious,” Astralytical space consulting firm founder Laura Forcyzk helped explain why the U.S. left the moon after the final Apollo mission and hasn’t been back.

The U.S. space race with Russia was the major driving factor to achieve a moon landing in the 1960s. The reason NASA stopped sending astronauts after 1972 and didn’t build the moon base it plans to now comes down to funding and politics.

“It is entirely political. Believe it or not, we proved 50 years ago that we could land humans on the moon,” Forcyzk said. “The Apollo program wasn’t meant to be sustainable. It was meant to beat the Soviet Union to the moon to ‘win the space race.’ And we succeeded in that mission, we’d be in the United States, though NASA accomplished that mission. And once that accomplished lunar landing people on the lunar surface, their mission was over.”

According to the Planetary Society, with inflation, if the U.S. went back to the moon today with the Apollo program, it would cost roughly $280 billion. That’s about $24 billion per year for Apollo missions of the 1960s and ’70s, which is more than NASA’s current annual budget of $24 billion. The space agency’s budget is divided between many programs and priorities, not just the new moon program, Artemis.

[Listen to the full episode of Space Curious below]

Decades later, there is now a commercial space company boom driving the return to the moon -- not only for the U.S., but around the world.

“It’s a shift in the way that NASA does things from how it used to do it, where NASA owned the hardware, NASA owned the mission, NASA owned everything, and funded everything to this difference that started really about a decade ago -- starting with sending cargo to the International Space Station. NASA contracts that out to private company by buying services,” said Forcyzk, referring to NASA’s commercial resupply services program.

Houston-based Intuitive Machines is one of those private space companies that will help pave the way for NASA to return humans to the moon by first sending robotic missions.

Intuitive Machines co-founder Tim Crain joined the show to talk about the company’s robotic moon lander Nova-C launching to the moon with NASA science this fall, under the agency’s commercial lunar payload services program, or CLIPS. Another private moon company, Astrobotic, also plans to launch a lander to the moon in early 2022 under the same program.

“NASA is asking for who can give us the best deal to take this experiment or capability to the moon. And then it’s up to us to also sell additional services to other customers, if we will, to make the whole mission and business case work,” Crain said. “So, that’s been really exciting to go out and say, ‘Hey, we were taking the stuff to the moon for NASA. Who else wants to go, and how do we fill the holes of our ship?’ Basically, to make good commerce.”

Intuitive Machines mission control room in Houston. (WKMG 2021)

Crain, the vice president of research and development at Intuitive Machines, explained that engineering and design have come a long way since the Apollo program.

Nova-C has all the bells and whistles. One of these new features is the landing navigation system.

“We basically take images of craters when we’re in orbit. And we use that to kind of do a global navigation solution. And then as we get closer and closer and closer, we continue to look at craters. But now, those craters are also more pertinent to the landing site, as well,” Crain said. “So, kind of thinking, think about it as road signs where as you’re driving down the interstate, you might see, you know, 500 miles to El Paso. But then once you get into San Antonio, now you’re looking at street signs.

NASA is sending along a few science instruments that will look at deorbit, descent and landing. Another instrument, the Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies, will focus on the dust and plumes created on the lunar surface, capturing video and images of Nova-C landing on the moon and the plumes it creates.

These instruments have implications for when astronauts land there in a few years.

“From a practical point of view, we need to understand things like how close can we put our assets on the moon before we need to put a blast shield, basically,” Crain explained. “So [what] you don’t want to do is, land close, land one, say cargo module, next to a habitation module. And then blow that regolith up, which are like tiny little pumice particles and damage the first vehicle. So, what kind of mitigations do we need to do as we begin to build moon habitats, moon bases, and understand the nature of those particles.”

The regolith, or moon dirt, is also bad news for spacesuits and seals of habitats. It’s important to know how to keep it out.

“We’ve got seals all over a spacecraft or habitat to keep the atmosphere and the vacuum out. Well, those those seals don’t like, you know, grit. And so that’s a big concern for Artemis program, understanding how to do dust mitigation with the spacesuits,” Crain said.

This time, the U.S. plans to stay on the moon with a sustainable presence with the help of international and commercial partners.

Forcyzk said during the Apollo era, no one could have predicted the commercial space boom fueling today’s growing industry. Had NASA continued with a human presence on the moon for more than 50 years without commercial support, it likely would not have been sustainable financially or politically.

“The way it’s happening now, is hopefully going to be sustainable so that we can continue to go, because if it’s all government-run and government-funded, it is at the whim of the government,” Forcyzk said. “And if it is a private company, or multiple private companies that have an ecosystem, a marketplace built up, then it could be much more sustainable and also much more international, because it’s not dependent on diplomacy as much as it’s dependent on international commerce.”

“Space Curious” is a podcast from WKMG and Graham Media Group that answers your intergalactic questions. Hosted by space reporter Emilee Speck, each episode is designed to inspire everyone, from the space curious to the space fanatics. Questions for the podcast can be submitted here.

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