The February 2021 landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars marked the start of a new era for NASA as it continues exploring deep space. The landing of a machine weighing 2,260 pounds from 164 million miles away is a massive feat of engineering that shows just how much NASA space technology has advanced since the Space Race. And now, as NASA continues to advance, it is the human aspect of these future missions that are particularly revolutionary as they push past new boundaries.

It’s been decades since the last time a human has walked on the surface of the Moon—so it’s safe to say scientists, space enthusiasts, and sci-fi junkies alike are excited for NASA’s slate of upcoming human missions. While rovers continue to analyze the Martian landscape, NASA’s Artemis missions and Gateway project are the next steps in bringing humans beyond low earth orbit and back to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. And who knows, perhaps a vacation home on Mars may be in our future…

What Is The Artemis Mission?

NASA is hard at work to return humans back to the Moon’s surface by 2024 with its upcoming Artemis lunar exploration program. There are three Artemis missions currently slated, with the third one being the only crewed mission:

Artemis I will be an uncrewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft in 2021. The purpose of this first phase is to provide a foundation for human deep space exploration. Over a period of about three weeks, the Orion will launch on the most powerful rocket NASA has constructed yet, and travel thousands of miles past the Moon.

Artemis I will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration.

Artemis II will be the first crewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft in 2023. The mission of the astronauts in this launch is to confirm that all the systems and processes put in place on the spacecraft function as they should. These include the departure and return operations and emergency procedures, among others. This is more so a test mission than an exploratory one, as it will set the foundation for future manned missions, and perhaps open the doors for the first woman on the moon.

Artemis II is a test mission to set the foundation for future manned missions.

Artemis III will be the actual mission back to the Moon using the Orion spacecraft in 2024. This mission is perhaps the most exciting of the three. While phases I and II are extremely important to the success of Artemis III, this third launch may have some rather historical moments. It is rumored that this launch will bring the first woman to the moon, a milestone that is long overdue. After traveling roughly 240,000 miles to lunar orbit, this crew will either board one of the human landing systems or dock to an outpost called The Gateway, gather supplies, and prepare for the journey back to Earth’s surface. The plan is for the crew to stay on the moon for about a week, making several walks on the lunar surface before returning home.

Similar to how the Perseverance rover landed on Mars—by using a combination of rocket thrusters and a parachute attached to the rover with helix-woven suspension rope that can carry at least 5,000 lbs—NASA’s third Artemis mission will use also a parachute system for astronauts returning to Earth.

Since Earth has a much thicker atmosphere than Mars, thrusters aren’t needed to get to a safe landing speed (about 17 mph). But Orion’s parachute system on Artemis will have a total of 11 parachutes to both slow and stabilize the crew modules as they fall down to the Earth’s surface.

What Is The Gateway?

To support its mission of eventually sending humans to Mars and pursuing deep space exploration, NASA is in the process of building a lunar outpost called The Gateway. Think of the Gateway as a mix between the International Space Station (ISS) and a 7-Eleven gas station in lunar orbit and you’ll be pretty close to what NASA is envisioning.  

The Gateway will function as a long-term lunar orbiting outpost.

The Gateway is planned to be about one-sixth the size of the ISS and will function as a long-term lunar orbiting outpost to help support sustainable astronaut missions under the Artemis program. This futuristic way station will help future Artemis astronauts move easily between the Moon’s surface or beyond and re-entry to Earth and serve as a resupply spot for lunar surface missions.

The two main parts of this vast undertaking—the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO)—are currently being developed. PPE is a high-power, 60-kilowatt solar electric propulsion spacecraft that will act as a command center for the Gateway. HALO will be the crew cabin that visiting astronauts will stay in as they prepare for their trip to the lunar surface. The initial launch of The Gateway’s PPE and HALO are currently scheduled for early 2024.

NASA & SpaceX’s Close Relationship

As the fervor of the Space Race died down, public support of government-funded space missions diminished. And while most Americans are in support of space exploration, fewer want their tax dollars put toward it. That’s why partnerships with privately-owned commercial businesses is the new norm for NASA. Instead of developing everything internally, NASA has pivoted to depending more on companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Dynetics for contracted work.

Founded by Elon Musk, commercial aerospace company SpaceX has built a close relationship with NASA, transporting astronauts and supplies to the ISS, and has won many of the highly sought after contracts for the upcoming Artemis missions. The American space agency just announced they awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to develop a version of the Starship rocket that will be able to land people on the moon for the third Artemis mission.

SpaceX beat out proposals from other notable aerospace companies like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. This came as a surprise since NASA usually selects a pair of contractors so the agency has multiple spacecraft options for high-profile, critical missions like the Artemis flights. This decision speaks volumes on the solid relationship and trust NASA and SpaceX have developed over recent years during their various contracts like sending supplies to the ISS.

The decision to give the $2.9 billion Starship program to SpaceX alone also significantly cuts costs and allows NASA to stay on track with the budget that Congress has approved for the missions. Since SpaceX’s proposal was significantly less expensive than Blue Origin, and they plan on paying for more than half of the developmental cost for Starship, it makes sense for NASA to continue this relationship. But having just one company on the Starship contract also means NASA will not have a backup option as the launch gets closer.

Big Picture Plans

The upcoming Artemis missions are all crucial building blocks in NASA’s larger goal of establishing a permanent presence in space that will make deep space exploration easier. Instead of launching from Earth’s surface, future exploration vehicles can dock and launch from the Gateway, not only shortening travel time, but lowering risk as well. This heavily facilitates future missions designed to explore Mars, asteroids, and comets.

The Gateway project isn’t just a NASA venture—it’s becoming an international project. The Canadian, Japanese, and European space agencies have joined in on the Gateway project and are already providing crucial contributions that will help make this massive undertaking a reality. Additionally many nations are pushing their own space agendas with China, India, and Russia all working towards putting their own people into space.

The Future?

While the future of human space travel still remains relatively restricted due to current space travel and technology limits, every mission that pushes the boundaries even a little, is a step forward in what could be achieved. Projects like the Artemis mission test the waters for what could be soon possible. With how technology and science continue to advance, it would not be far off to suggest that humans would be able to travel beyond low-earth orbit and potentially reach locations that only rovers have reached.

It is worth noting that not all space fans believe that human space travel is the future of NASA. There are some who believe that NASA should stick to robotic missions only. Humans are fragile in regards to the elements of space, and they need food, water, and oxygen simply to exist. Their bodies go through tremendous stress both physically and mentally. Rovers on the other hand are not only more resilient, but can be improved and revolutionized year after year in ways that humans could never evolve in such a short period of time, or ever. And if things go wrong, the only loss is monetary. It is likely that both machines and humans will play different roles in space exploration.

Ultimately, space remains largely uncharted territory, both full of opportunity and full of risk. As NASA continues to push past the established boundaries of lunar exploration, we learn more and more about what could be possible. There are some who think Mars is the new Earth and some who believe it should remain uninhabited, and there are even others who believe that there may be other life forms past our planet. But one thing remains the same: there is more out there to be explored, and we have only skimmed the surface.


  • Miles Murray

    Miles is Seattle based tech columnist and blogger. In his spare time, he has loved freelance writing for various science publications, exploring topics from outer space to emerging tech.

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