The project’s launch marks the first step in what could be a new era of true space travel.
NASA and its various ongoing space programs have been a frequent topic of coverage over the many years that I have been writing this column for Nextgov. The reason for that, in addition to the fact that I think space exploration is pretty amazing, is that our space program really demonstrates the ultimate manifestation of government technology. Because if something is going to work in space, it needs to be close to flawless given that the nearest repair shop might be millions of miles away.
Look at some of the impressive technology that NASA has employed either directly on missions or as part of their support infrastructure. Robots are of course the new front line of space exploration these days, and NASA’s new rovers consistently perform beyond expectations. But even the robots themselves are made up of, or rely on, other cutting edge technologies. For example, the record-setting NASA Ingenuity helicopter must employ artificial intelligence to think for itself, since it can’t rely on an Earth-bound controller to tell it what to do in real-time. Its brain is also largely based on open source software. And it transmits its findings back home via a space-based internet, which NASA is also working to expand and improve. In fact, the entire Perseverance mission sends its data home that way. And once those millions of photos, sound clips and other data points are received here on Earth, the agency is using crowd-sourcing to help cut down on analysis times.
Other technologies that may one day be used to support government missions in space include edge computing to track potentially harmful microbes and bacteria, and 3D printing in order to create the housing for our next moon base. And the 3D printers churning out moon houses might even use moon rock and other lunar composites as their substrate. So the Artemis moon base could end up being made from locally sourced materials.
Which brings us to The Artemis Project itself, which is going to be so much more than simply putting people on the moon again. If the multi-year, multi-mission Artemis Project plays out exactly as planned, it would provide expertise in key areas that we will need for true space travel. This includes constructing a massive space station in orbit around the moon, building a permanent moon base on the surface where astronauts and scientists will live and work, perfecting the art of launching and landing vehicles on other planets, operating for months or years in a limited gravity environment, and setting up a supply line between Earth and the moon using both government and commercial space agencies.
Anyone who is a fan of the idea of space travel as seen in popular television shows and movies like Star Trek or even Star Wars will recognize the need for many of those skills. It’s really the next step needed beyond just having a single space station orbiting Earth. Once we know how to successfully build and maintain a base of operations on the moon, and also how to launch missions from there, then Mars is next. After that, who knows where we go. Maybe we will set our sights on the edge of the solar system, or maybe even farther than that. It’s even possible that some of the things we learn while executing the Artemis Project will lead to new technologies and practices that further expand our options beyond even what we are capable of right now. NASA talks about many of those goals in a video about the project.
The reason I am bringing up Artemis is because this weekend was a big milestone for the project. NASA scheduled a so-called wet test of the Space Launch System rocket that will eventually become the constantly evolving backbone of the project. In a wet test, a rocket is fully fueled and then emptied again, testing both support systems and personnel. That test with the SLS was delayed after lightning stuck the launch pad several times during the test window. There were also some technical difficulties with pressurizing the new rocket, which was not totally unexpected. NASA plans to resume the testing this week.
If all goes well, the first launch of that rocket, and the first mission for the Artemis Project, will take place later this month. According to NASA officials speaking at a teleconference this weekend, delays during dress rehearsals are common, as the teams are still learning about the rocket and getting their first hands-on experience with it fully loaded and sitting on the launchpad.
When the first Artemis mission does launch, it will have ambitious goals. The unmanned rocket will make a 1.3 million mile round trip over several weeks, including performing two close passes of the moon to gain speed in a so-called slingshot maneuver. And when it returns to Earth, it will do so faster than any other returning spacecraft ever has, hitting the atmosphere at 24,500 miles per hour—Mach 32. Talk about a shakedown cruise.
The Artemis 1 mission will also perform some other valuable work by deploying 13 CubeSats along the way. The CubeSats are tiny satellites designed to operate independently, or as part of a collective swarm. They too could one day change the world, but that is a topic for another time.
So, keep looking toward the skies as NASA and the Artemis Project continue to move forward. For those of us with a fascination for space travel, it might seem like events are proceeding painfully slowly. But just like Russel Watson says in the theme song for the Enterprise television show, “It’s been a long road, getting from there to here.”
Watson was singing about the crew of The Enterprise finally beginning real space exploration outside the solar system, and we are unfortunately on the other side of that timeline, with the long road still ahead. But we will get there eventually, and the first flight of the Artemis Project is one of the many steps we will need to take on that long journey.
John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys