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Interpreting the space travel craze

As NASA chugs along with missions to the moon and beyond, experts weigh in on the international frenzy to explore space

The crew of NASAs Artemis II mission (left to right): Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jeremy Hansen, NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Reid Wiseman, and Christina Hammock Koch during their introduction on April 3 Getty Images/Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post

Interpreting the space travel craze

On April 3, NASA revealed the four astronauts who will travel around the moon on Artemis II. With a 2024 target launch date, Artemis II marks NASA’s first crewed mission to the moon in over 50 years.

NASA isn’t alone in its quest to rediscover the moon and more. Other countries and private companies are also planning space missions, with several hinting at sending humans to Mars. NASA has sent robotic explorers to Mars for decades but never an astronaut.

The rush to propel humans into deep space raises questions and perhaps even causes panic for some. Former NASA employees provide insight into the ongoing space mania and its implications.

Artemis II’s anticipated 10-day flight is a first step in establishing a long-term presence on the moon. The crew will fly around the moon to confirm that the Orion spacecraft functions properly in deep space while carrying humans. On future Artemis missions, some crew members will venture off the spacecraft to probe the lunar surface.

NASA is targeting the lunar South Pole for these moonwalks, a region of the moon where humans have never touched down. The lunar South Pole interests scientists because it’s known to contain ice, as shown by satellite images. Water on the moon could potentially be used as rocket fuel once broken down into liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

In its “Moon to Mars program, NASA claims lunar exploration is a stepping stone toward sending astronauts to the red planet.

Stephen West, a senior flight dynamics engineer at Space Exploration Engineering and former NASA employee, said skills and techniques gained from moon missions are transferable to Mars missions. He explained that NASA historically dedicated more energy to spacecraft maintenance than to training astronauts to explore cosmic terrain.

The Artemis missions will emphasize exploration over maintenance. “Once we get people [to the moon] … they’re going to need to have a lot more agility in terms of where they go, in terms of how they can replan their operation, and those are all analogous to what we’ll do on Mars. Both human expeditions will be doing field geology, you know gathering samples, finding samples,” he said.

But West said the contrasting environments on the moon and Mars make some people skeptical about whether travel to the moon helps us get to Mars. The moon has no atmosphere, while Mars has just enough atmosphere (1 percent of Earth’s at sea level) to make landing a challenge. The presence of an atmosphere results in massive heat generation during a descent onto Mars with a peak temperature of about 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit. While the car-sized Curiosity rover successfully completed this landing with the help of a heat shield, larger spacecraft required to carry people and their supplies will generate much more heat.

Philip Metzger, a planetary physicist at the University of Central Florida with nearly 30 years of experience working at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, is more confident the Artemis missions will help prepare for missions carrying humans to Mars. The moon’s harsher environment provides opportunities to troubleshoot unforeseen challenges that could arise on Mars missions. “We can find the answers, we just can’t find the questions,” he said. “By doing these operations on the moon first, it’s gonna show us what we don’t know, what we haven’t even thought about yet.”

Metzger projects people will walk on Mars by 2030, and Elon Musk will have achieved his million-person Martian colony by 2060. Metzger said the biggest hurdle is economic sustainability. But according to models he’s run, it’s doable if Musk fronts the initial costs. Once Mars residents establish a thriving economy, they can pay back Musk and become financially independent. Metzger said this economy is achievable with industries that won’t require shipping large amounts of cargo from Mars back to Earth, such as building software.

Both West and Metzger see echoes of the Cold War space race in today’s international space competition. NASA’s Artemis Accords establish a framework for countries to conduct space travel peacefully. China and Russia were not among the 23 countries who signed the Artemis Accords. “We’re walking into some uncertainty, but we’re not going to get more certainty until we move forward,” said Metzger. “These new international norms are going to develop by setting precedent.”

Heather Frank

Heather is a science correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, the University of Maryland, and Carnegie Mellon University. She has worked in both food and chemical product development, and currently works as a research chemist. Heather resides with her family in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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