After Apollo, Artemide: is the new NASA lunar program really possible?


It will be due to the imminent 50th of the landing, or the desire to link the current US Presidency to a grandiose enterprise: the fact is that the Trump Administration seems genuinely intent on bringing the man back to the moon in 2024, and to succeed asked Congress for a further (and salty) push.

On Monday, May 13, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine applied for another $ 1.6 billion (currently 1.4 billion euros) to be added to the 21 already requested for the space agency's budget in 2020. As Bridenstine pointed out, this would be a sort of "down payment" to respect the ambitious plans for a return to the Moon in 2024, or four years earlier than announced by the same administration a few months ago.

Image An artistic representation of the re-entry into the atmosphere of the Orion lunar capsule: its first unmanned inaugural flight, in 2014, proceeded smoothly. |

Hope is female. The new lunar program will be called Artemis - Artemis, the personification of the crescent Moon - twin sister of Apollo ("protective deity" of the first series of US missions). Among the candidates for the new adventure there will also be a woman for the first time, as Bridenstine does not cease to repeat … and yet, from here to the first landing of this millennium there is a series of not inconsiderable difficulties.

2024 equals the day after tomorrow, in spatial terms. NASA should entrust its crew to a space capsule that has not yet been tested for human transport, launched by a giant rocket that has never flown and ferried from a lander that does not yet exist. The astronauts would rely on a cislunare outpost that was not assembled and on space suits not yet drawn. In short, the premises are not the most encouraging.

A short blanket. To cover all these needs, the demanding first installment required seems like very little. The funds that have yet to be approved by the Congress would begin to cover the costs of the Space Lauch System (SLS), the launcher designed by a consortium led by Boeing, whose baptism of the air has been postponed for years, as well as the Orion spacecraft, a project on the finishing line, which however will not fly with a human crew before 2022.

About a billion dollars will be used instead to finance a lunar lander that can ferry the astronauts from the Lunar Gateway (the Cislunar station, which today only exists on paper) to the surface of our satellite. Perhaps not by chance a few days ago Jeff Bezos revealed a new Blue Origin lunar module design.

Solar System, Gateway, Deep Space Gateway, Moon colonization, lunar space station Illustration: the Gateway, when it will be completed and operational. How will the Lunar Space Station work? Nasa

In comfortable installments. In short, even if the new overall budget of NASA (22.6 billion, if approved) will be the most consistent in recent years, for space technology experts it would be only the beginning of a series of disbursements, indispensable for trying to to meet the 2024 deadline. For Casey Dreier, advisor of the Planetary Society, consulted by the Atlantic, at least 4 or 5 billion dollars a year would be needed for the next five years.

The "modest" down payment requested for now would therefore be a cautious move, in order not to annoy the Congress - after all, for the wall on the border with Mexico, 8.6 billion dollars were requested, and in one fell swoop. In any case, with the request for money the big programmatic changes that the experts say would be essential to be able to shorten the times, such as the use of rockets - and if it also serves the capsules - of private space companies like SpaceX (with his Falcon Heavy) and the temporary provisioning of the Lunar Gateway. Alternatively, a simplified version of the lunar orbit station could be requested from private companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing or Blue Origin.

Everything happens while NASA struggles to restart space missions from American soil after the Space Shuttle retires. The last static test of the engines of the Crew Dragon capsule ended very badly, and the accident could delay the first manned flight, scheduled for this summer.

who loses us? Then there is the question of where to recover the funds that are missing. There are fears of cuts to other programs - especially the scientific and dissemination programs - while according to the Associated Press those 1.6 billion would be moved from the residual funds of the Pell Grants, the federal subsidies to help low-income students to support university education .