NASA’s $30 Billion Moon Return Mission, Explained | Beyond Earth

On December 14, 1972, astronauts Eugene Cernan
and Harrison Schmitt blasted off the moon and headed home. Astronaut: We’re on our way, Houston! Narrator: It was the last
time any human stepped foot on the lunar surface. But NASA is hoping that’s about to change. This is the new era of space exploration. And it’s even more ambitious than before. In May 2019, NASA officially announced its new project, Artemis. Dave Mosher: Artemis is
NASA’s big plan to go back to the moon by 2024, to land the first woman and the next man on the surface of the moon. Narrator: The mission was named in homage to Apollo’s twin sister, Artemis, the Greek goddess of
the hunt and the moon. But just because it bears a similar name doesn’t make it an Apollo rerun. Where Apollo astronauts
only spent hours or days on the lunar surface, Artemis astronauts will potentially spend weeks there to explore it for resources and investigate the far side of the moon, as well as to test technologies for future deep-space missions. This will give scientists
a much better understanding of the solar system, its history, and how to operate in deep space. And that’s the pressing
reason for this mission. Mosher: But it’s also a
dry run for going to Mars, which is much father and much harder. The journey, instead of
being three days to the moon, is six to nine months. So you need to practice
these deep-space operations, and you also need to
practice surface operations. The moon is a great place to go for that because it’s so close. Narrator: But even though it’s close, that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. NASA said it will need
$20 billion to $30 billion for the next mission. That’s up to $6 billion annually
over the next five years, and that’s on top of its
current $20-billion-plus annual budget. Though, for comparison,
$30 billion is only about 4% of the US’s
annual military budget. Or about three of the Navy’s
newest nuclear submarines. Now, a lot of Artemis’
budget will go towards building NASA’s next-generation rocket, the Space Launch System, or SLS. Mosher: Space Launch System
is this gargantuan rocket that will actually take the astronauts into orbit around Earth and a bunch of the equipment
they need to go up there, too. Narrator: Once finished, it will be the most powerful rocket ever made. But things with the SLS
haven’t exactly gone to plan. Mosher: The first rocket was
supposed to launch in 2017, and it’s now 2019 and they’re not looking to launch the first one until 2021. So they’re years behind schedule, billions of dollars over budget, and they’re supposed to make one of these every year
or two going forward. Narrator: To top it
off, SLS isn’t reusable, like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. So that means after each launch, the rocket will be discarded. That’s an estimated $1.5
billion to $3 billion NASA won’t get back for every launch. And that raises the question, why doesn’t it just team up with SpaceX and use the Falcon Heavy? Mosher: The advantages of
SLS is that it’s just bigger, and that’s important if you’re trying to get big space-station modules and lunar landers out into space. Narrator: Estimates show
the Falcon Heavy could launch a payload of about
21,000 kilograms to the moon, whereas NASA says the SLS will
lift more than twice that. So, yeah, size definitely
matters, but it’s also about… Mosher: Politics, jobs,
and other missions. So, politics, because these people in Congress
who pull the purse strings have a lot of districts where
NASA centers are located. The second part, jobs, is because there are tens of thousands
of people employed to build and maintain and do all
the things you need to do to create Space Launch System. And the third part is
that NASA is legally bound to use this rocket for some missions, including the Europa Clipper, which is supposed to go out to Jupiter and look for signs of life
around one of its icy moons. Narrator: Now, contrary
to old sci-fi films, rockets don’t land on the moon. There’s a series of
steps that happen first, including rocket-stage separations and reaching lunar orbit. Now, for Apollo astronauts, they flew their spacecraft
into lunar orbit, undocked the lunar lander, and rode it down to the surface. Artemis has bigger plans. Like Apollo, Artemis will
fly a spacecraft called Orion towards the moon. But then, instead of
orbiting the moon by itself, it will dock at what NASA
has dubbed the Gateway. Mosher: The Gateway is kind of like this orbital outpost for the moon. It’s the place you go to sort of stock up, get everything you need,
get your affairs in order. Narrator: So, it will
act as a living space for astronauts going to and from the moon. But it will also house
an in-space laboratory and be a port for future
deep-space missions, such as a trip to Mars. After two test missions
to the moon’s orbit, NASA plans to start building
the Gateway in 2022, but astronauts still
need a way to and from the lunar surface. That’s where the lunar lander comes in. And this is one part of the
mission NASA might not build. Mosher: Its administrator has
said, look, commercial space, like companies like
Blue Origin and SpaceX, they’re getting better
at this than we are. Narrator: Whether NASA
decides to team up or not is a mystery right now. But if anything is certain, it’s that temporary trips
to and from the moon will only be the start. Ultimately, NASA wants
a permanent lunar base where astronauts can live
and work on the moon. Mosher: So, after the
first landing, in 2024, NASA is hoping to do one,
about one a year, through 2028, set up this moon base, and then we’re really talking
about something interesting, which is mining the moon for water. Water you can split into
hydrogen and oxygen, which are two really
important rocket fuels. Narrator: Right now, humans are limited to how far we can travel in space by the amount of fuel in
our rocket tanks at launch. But once you can make
rocket fuel in space, then you can travel much farther. Mosher: They want to
set up this lunar base on the surface to mine all the water and make the Gateway this
big, go-to destination for refueling and this pit stop for Mars. Narrator: And then, if they
can figure all that out? Mosher: We’re talking
about expanding the reach of the human race
throughout the solar system. Narrator: Sounds great in theory, but in reality, there’s
gonna be some tension. Mosher: The politics of the
moon are going to get very weird in the coming decades if we start building
permanent human bases there. China wants to go there,
NASA wants to go there, SpaceX wants to go there, but international space law basically says you can’t claim any territory in space or on another planet, another body. Narrator: That’s right, space law. In 1967, the United Nations
founded the Outer Space Treaty. Ratified by 109 countries, this first treaty sets
boundaries for space travel. There have been four more treaties since, but the last was signed decades ago. So, currently, space
law is pretty outdated. Mosher: The international
space law has to catch up to the current times. And we haven’t done that yet. Narrator: For example, it lacks clarity, especially with regards
to mining resources. There is nothing on who
would own the resources, whether they would need a license, or how to settle disputes, or even who can approve the
mining in the first place. Solving these and other issues will be key to the new era of space
exploration envisioned by NASA. If it happens, that is. Mosher: There isn’t the
political willpower, because of that, and we’re really pinched for dollars, with all of the domestic
issues and climate change and other major priorities that are happening here on Earth. So whether or not NASA can pull this off remains to be seen. Narrator: But even if NASA doesn’t, maybe someone else will.


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