The moon for NASA has shifted to a space race on who will first colonize it first and establish a human settlement.
The Artemis mission has set sights on laying the foundations for the first human settlements beyond Earth. It creates a launchpad for extraplanetary colonization.
The agency is seeking expertise from private firms like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Nokia, Lockheed Martin, and General Motors. These companies will develop solutions for NASA’s lunar missions.
NASA awarded SpaceX a contract worth about $3 billion in 2021 to create a commercial human lander for the company’s rocket Starship. The deal aims at landing humans on the moon as part of its Artemis program.
Following the continued commercialization of low Earth orbit and sub-orbital flights, space agencies aim to build a sustainable presence on and near the Moon.
Apollo missions of the 60s and 70s sought to see if humans could reach the moon. The Artemis missions seek to establish a human colony there.
According to Howard Hu, the person in charge of the Orion lunar spacecraft program for NASA, humans are on track to live and work on the moon by 2030.
The ambition is for the moon to become a commercial hub of human and robotic activity that launches journeys to Mars.
Space race to mining the Moon
Exploiting lunar resources on the moon is also on the minds of many spacepreneurs.
Regolith aka moon dust could be mined for helium-3, a rare nonradioactive particle that could be used in fusion reactors to create clean energy on Earth. China is one country that wants to use Regolith to build its lunar station.
However, the moon’s most attractive resource is water. Scientists revealed the discovery of supplies of water around the moon’s poles. While extraction could prove difficult and costly, water can be put to great use for missions.
NASA spokespeople estimate there are $137 billion in commercial opportunities in the next 10 years, estimating more than 400-plus missions to be launched in that timeline
Payload services and laying the groundwork
NASA is working with several American companies to deliver science and technology to the lunar surface through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.
These companies bid on delivering payloads for NASA, including payload integration and operations, launching from Earth and landing on the surface of the Moon.
Under Artemis, commercial deliveries beginning in 2022 will perform science experiments, test technologies and demonstrate capabilities to help NASA explore the Moon and prepare for human missions.
Blue Origin and Spacex are some of the NASA-approved companies to deliver these payloads. CLPS contracts have a cumulative maximum contract value of $2.6 billion through 2028.
One such payload, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover or VIPER, is set to be delivered to the south pole in 2024. Viper will seek out traces of water ice on the moon.
Both Russia and India hope to land robotic probes near the South Pole of the Moon soon.
The aforementioned missions racing for the Moon are Luna-25 and Chandrayaan-3.
Another plan is to build local power grids by bringing nuclear power reactors to the moon. With proper illumination and path mapping, General Motors and Lockheed Martin will bring battery-powered rovers. These rovers could travel much further and easier than those used in the Apollo days.
Next are phone networks for easy navigation and communication as there is currently no GPS or WiFi on the moon’s surface. NASA tasked this mission to Nokia via a $14 million contract to deliver a 4G network there by 2024.
Leaders of the space race
The U.S. has 3,433 satellites in orbit versus 541 for China. It enjoyed about $60 billion in budgets back in 2021 versus about $16 billion for China.
China has nonetheless attempted 55 space launches in 2021, exceeding the U.S. by 4. It was the first country to put a spacecraft on the far side of the moon in 2019. Other countries lack behind.
NASA will rely on private sector companies for the development of future lunar missions.
SpaceX has led in the race to land this bid, gaining billion-dollar contracts to develop the HLS for NASA. The Human Landing System (HLS) is the mode of transportation that will take astronauts to the lunar surface.
The mega-rocket Starship is SpaceX’s most ambitious project yet.
NASA also awarded Blue Origin a $3.4 billion contract for its Artemis V human lunar launcher. The funding should boost the development of the company’s own mega-rocket, New Glenn.
Lockheed Martin was awarded $3.6 billion in contracts to deliver six Orion spacecraft for Artemis missions III to VIII.
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