The Artemis I mission marks the beginning of a new era of human exploration for NASA. While the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will be unmanned, Artemis II will carry astronauts around the moon. The third Artemis flight will carry humans back to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. NASA Associate Director Thomas Zurbuchen has been key to the development of the program. new scientist reporter Leah Crane caught up with him at Cape Canaveral, Florida, shortly before the first Artemis I launch attempt on August 29, which had to be delayed due to technical difficulties. The new release date is scheduled for September 3.
How you feel? Enthusiastic? highly strung?
Every time you do something like this where everything has to work, there is, of course, excitement, joy, pride in the team, but there is also some concern, because you have bet everything on this moment. There is even fear that something could go wrong because many things have to go right.
Aside from the release itself, is there anything we’re going to learn that you’re particularly excited about?
There is a number of scientific research to be found there, much of it related to radiation, both with CubeSats and with CubeSats. [miniature satellites] and also radiation experiments in Orion. I’m really excited to learn about the deep space environment in the context of humans. We haven’t really thought about it for 50 years with that intensity.
It’s been a long road to this point, with countless delays and budget overruns. What is it all worth?
Must be. And it will be. After 20 years in low Earth orbit, we need to go further. Getting to that, I wish it was easier, but the journey begins with this.
How far has NASA planned after this first SLS launch?
We have to be really suspicious of the plans. The first three Artemis missions that we really need to make happen. We have to get back to the surface of the moon and there are no shortcuts. We need to be working on all three missions now.
When you go to Artemis IV to VII, of course we’re working on that, but on a time scale of say 10 years, or 15 years, there are a lot of variables that will adjust. The question is, how many big pitchers will we have? There’s a big pitcher sitting on the platform, will there be others? How many in the private sector? How many internationally?
The next question is, what will we discover in relation to moon science by doing these first missions? What we discovered is largely driving the future plan. Plans beyond the upcoming Artemis missions really should be adaptable, they must be.
After this first uncrewed SLS launch, how much more difficult is it to put people in the Orion crew capsule on the rocket?
It is much more difficult. There are many problems. First of all, this is the first trip and, in fact, I think the risk to Orion is greater than the risk to the rocket. Bringing Orion back will be as challenging as leaving Earth.
Why is that?
Frankly, I’ve sat through 11+ hours of system reviews, so I’ve broken down every single risk out there. The heat shield is the main one that people have talked about, but the whole integration of the European Service Module system with the other parts, the propulsion part, the orbital injection, how it’s all going to work, it’s just not easy. . Set [communications] piece with this complex orbit, the orbital debris piece, the risks just add up. The mission only ends once Orion is safely here.
Are we using a lot of knowledge that we got from the Apollo program?
Yes, we must always learn everything we can learn from the previous generation, but I think this is also completely new: we return to a different moon than the one we left. The questions we have are very different and the research tools: small satellites were not a thing, AI was not a thing, massive amounts of data that we can analyze were not a thing. I think exciting science is going to come out of it, for sure.
The purpose of the Artemis missions is very different from the Apollo program. We’re not just going to plant a flag, how has that affected the mission plan?
When you first return with humans to the surface of the moon, the most important goal is to make the humans survive, whether or not you have a scientific purpose. As we go forward, when we go beyond the Artemis III mission, the science becomes much more dominant. We’re already talking right now about what kind of portable instruments we give astronauts, how much sample mass can we bring back? Because we believe that samples are just as important as anything that happens on the surface of the moon. The role of science is increasing as we move forward.
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