The third and final installment of the Artemis series looks at what happens after we land on the moon again. What are the next steps and how does the Artemis program set us up for further exploration of the solar system?
Humans have always been fascinated by the moon. And why wouldn’t we be? It’s always been up there, cycling through our sky. Influencing our beliefs and superstitions, shaping our perception of time. Guiding us on our journeys.
Our fate as a species has always depended on the moon. Quite literally. If not for the stabilizing effect of the moon, it’s thought the Earth’s tilt could have swung wildly over billions of years, making the formation of advanced life impossible.
That’s how much the moon has shaped our past. We literally might not be here without it. But if NASA has their way, it could be just as important to our future.
This is the third and final installment of my series on the Artemis program. The first episode was about the early robotic missions, the second was about the planned crewed missions. Today we’re going to go beyond.
Before we get into the meat and potatoes of this video – the rocks and the regolith if you will – I should start by acknowledging that a lot of this is speculative. Aspirational even.
Because as I say in the previous video, so far the Artemis program is only funded through Artemis 5, which would be only the 2nd crewed moon landing, around 2028. Fingers crossed.
So as of right now, anything beyond the 2nd moon landing is kinda up in the air…
Actually, I say that… As far as I know it’s still true, but just last month, NASA ordered three more Orion capsules from Lockheed Martin for Artemis 6, 7, and 8.
So that’s pretty cool.
But still, future funding for this program will have to be decided by a future government, who will likely be dealing with an even higher level of dystopia than we are experiencing right now, so…
On the other hand, there are reasons to think it absolutely could continue, China and Russia are showing interest in their own moon bases so if that competition crops up, money could magically appear.
Also the continuing growth of private space companies could drastically reduce the price of the missions and add more opportunities around moon bases.
Especially if we are able to successfully mine and utilize resources on the moon and provide that economic incentive. More on that later.
All of this is to say that the further into the future we go, the more speculative it all becomes. The point of this video is to just kinda look at the possibilities, based on known plans but also the overall program objectives.
Artemis VI-X, what we know
So let’s pick up where we left off with Artemis 6.
If you do a search for Artemis 6, literally the only thing that comes up is a link to the wikipedia page containing a list of Artemis missions. It’s just mentioned in there, it doesn’t even have its own page.
And it’s mentioned as “Proposed”
So I can’t really talk about specific Artemis 6 plans plans because they super don’t exist yet. Or any of those proposed missions.
But in general if Artemis 1-5 were about getting boots back on the moon and establishing the Gateway, 6-10 will be about setting up a base camp. And learning how to access and use moon resources.
It’s not going to look like much at first, it’s going to be a while before we have a cool sci-fi looking moon base, but according to NASA associate administrator for human spaceflight Kathy Leuders,
“On each new trip, astronauts are going to have an increasing level of comfort with the capabilities to explore and study more of the Moon than ever before,”
Details are still sketchy but what we can discern can be found in NASA’s Lunar Surface Sustainability Concept.
The first few missions, maybe even up to Artemis 8 will have astronauts living in the lunar lander for increasingly longer periods of time, with rovers giving them wider access to the moon. I’ll get to those in a second because they’re pretty cool.
Scattered about the area of the basecamp will be various experiments, communication equipment, robotic rovers, and power modules with solar panels and whatnot.
A lot of this will be provided by the CLPS program and private partners.
Eventually the plan is to land what they’re calling the Foundation Surface Habitat, which is kinda like a space station module that stands vertically.
The design is still in the works so any images here are just concepts, some show it with a solid metal hull, some look inflatable but it’s designed to house a crew of 2-4 people for up to 60 days.
The design should feature space for crew quarters, exercise, a medical station, and storage, along with an airlock for EVAs.
This would be the home base from which the crew would work, explore, experiment, and build.
And they would get around with the use of those rovers I was talking about a second ago.
There’s two designs that NASA is working on, the first is called the Lunar Terrain Vehicle, or LTV, because acronym.
The LTV is a lot like the Apollo rover, it’s an open-air – or open space – platform with space for 2-3 astronauts with cargo.
Except like everything in the Artemis program, this is light-years beyond the Apollo rover because not just will it be able to go way further, it can also function autonomously.
Using some of what we figured out on the Mars Rovers I’m sure.
Right now NASA is soliciting designs for this rover so it’s still being pitched but it’s supposed to go up on Artemis 5, the second moon landing.
So it’ll be up there long before the Foundation Surface Habitat, in fact by the time it gets there, there might be a few of them but along with the surface habitat comes another rover – a far more advanced rover.
This one is called the Habitable Mobility Platform. The key word here is habitable, meaning astronauts can live inside of it. It’s a pressurized moon car.
The whole point of the HMP is that Astronauts can just climb inside it and go for a ride, no suiting up and all the preparation that’s involved with that.
Ideally the HMP would dock with the Foundation Surface Habitat so crew members could just climb inside the HMP, undock and start exploring.
So that takes care of the base camp, again, nothing more than a habitat with rovers shuttling astronauts to and from various experiments and study sites.
But those sites and experiments will be testing out the viability of using the water resources on the moon. So a lot of what we plan for this era of Artemis depends on how those early water hunts go.
I mean in a best case scenario, a robotic mission like VIPER finds water ice, Artemis 3 lands close enough to sample it and bring it back, and Artemis 5 is able to do in situ experiments with it.
If that’s the case – and we would be incredibly lucky if that happened – you might see actually stockpiling the ice and using it for habitation or fuel production on Artemis 6.
Then 7, 8, and 9 could be increasingly longer missions, setting up the foundations for a base – maybe two missions could be simultaneous or have larger crews, and by 10 we’re actually constructing a base.
Or… Artemis 3 and 5 don’t find the water. Or they find it but can’t access it. Or they hit some other technical hurdle that we can’t think of yet.
In that case, Artemis 6 – maybe even 7 and 8 – will still be working on that problem. It might be Artemis 10 before we get to actually use the water in any way.
And honestly, by Artemis 10, we would have landed on the moon 7 times, if we still didn’t have the water and resources thing figured out, I imagine the program will be in trouble.
By that point the novelty of being on the moon will have worn off and the cost of this program will be setting in, with still no real pathway to a permanent settlement.
In other words it would kind-of follow the same pattern as Apollo. International competition notwithstanding.
So, when it comes to Artemis 6 through 10, that is one option, total failure, or we successfully learn how to access and use the moon’s water in situ and we’re laying the foundations for the moon base.
Since there’s really nowhere to go with the first option, let’s keep playing with the second option.
Artemis X and Beyond
All right, so it’s 2033 and Artemis 11 is being prepped to start a new phase in the program. A permanently inhabited moon base.
By the way, it is entirely possible that at this point there are private companies regularly flying around and even landing on the moon, but we’re here to talk about Artemis so I’m gonna stick with that.
It’s also entirely possible that the SLS could be retired at this point. Maybe Starship becomes the ride, maybe it’s something else but I feel like that whole paradigm of how the SLS is built is on the way out. But I could be wrong.
I really see the moon base as just the International Space Station… sitting on the moon.
So much of what we learned in the last 20 years of the ISS will be applicable to living on a moon base. That system of running the ISS will just drag and drop onto the moon.
What that moon base will look like, and how it will be built is a wide open question.
Sticking with the ISS theme, we could see modules delivered to the surface via something like the Dynetics lander, where the modules can be removed and connected together on the surface, basically an interconnected series of canisters.
Some have suggested we could even take one of the SpaceX Starships and turn it on its side for a permanent habitat. Basically you would just tip it over, remove the fuel tanks to turn the entire ship into habitable volume, and build out the interior, then cover it up with regolith.
It’s an interesting idea. Feels a little janky to me, personally, but it’s a good reuse of existing hardware. I feel like it would require a lot of construction on site that would be a lot more challenging than some of the other ideas but… it’s an idea.
The bit about covering it with regolith though, that’s definitely an idea that’s being explored across several moon base designs.
As you probably already know, people spending a lot of time on the moon are going to be subject to a lot more radiation and cosmic rays than we’re exposed to here on Earth.
Even on the ISS, they’re underneath that protective magnetic shield that we have here on Earth, the moon inhabitants won’t have that.
We’re going to need some kind of thick barrier if we’re going to be up there for long periods, and the regolith is the best solution for that.
Some of the moon base ideas involve inflatable habitats that then get covered up with regolith, or 3D printing on top of them with a mix of regolith and some bonding agents.
ESA is actually working on this with the famous architecture firm Fosters + Partners.
In their own promotional video, they say that the dome will house four people and it will take three months to fully cover the building using autonomous robots.
The robots both scoop regolith but also print it in a design similar to a bird’s bone to ensure strength and lightweight qualities.
There’s even an idea of taking human waste and bonding it together with fungi to make essentially space poop bricks.
These methods are being tested at an ESA-built facility named LUNA that just broke ground last year.
Yet another option that might be further down the line is lava tubes.
The moon, way back in the past, had volcanic activity, this is why there are various patches of darker colored rock across the surface.
Or, “mare” as they’re called.
This volcanic activity left hundreds of lava tubes under the surface that could protect astronauts from space nasties. Might be a lot easier than 3D printing entire buildings.
Currently, in Hawaii, NASA scientists are analyzing the tubes there to see if they would work as homes.
Also the lava tubes on the moon are frickin’ huge, getting up to 3,000 feet (900m) in diameter. That’s nearly a kilometer wide.
Some of them have the same surface area as all of Dallas. Not as much barbecue though.
You have to appreciate that ancient man once took shelter in caves and thousands of years later we are back at it. Makes sense though, we’d be using them for the same reason they did back then. Easy shelter.
One other piece of infrastructure worth mentioning is a communication network around the moon, and for that, NASA is developing LunaNet.
LunaNet is described as an extensible and scalable lunar communication and navigation architecture.
With a LunaNet architecture in place, robotic landers, rovers, and astronauts on the Moon will have network access similar to networks on Earth.
It will be able to store and forward data to provide a Delay/Disruption Tolerant Network (DTN). The objective is to avoid needing to pre-schedule data communications back to Earth.
LunaNet will also offer navigation services, like a lunar GPS.
Or maybe LPS? Lunar Positioning System?
NASA tested this system in the most moon-like place they could find on Earth – Cleveland.
I’ve never been to Cleveland, I don’t know how many craters they have.
NASA’s Compass Lab at Glenn, which usually specializes in abstract spacecraft and mission design, used the lamppost infrastructure around Cleveland to kind of test what a moon network could look like.
The study found that attaching Wi-Fi routers to approximately 20,000 lampposts or other utility poles would help solve Cleveland’s connectivity issues.
By spacing routers no more than 100 yards apart, this approach would provide around 7.5 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed in a four-person home.
They’re applying this data to build a network of nodes in orbit around the moon and on the surface with 4 main objectives:
- detection and information
- radio/optical science services.
Now, at this point I could go on and speculate about all kinds of details involving a potential moon base but ultimately, as you can see in pretty much any of NASA’s literature around Artemis, the ultimate goal is Mars.
Everything in the Artemis program is just a test bed for technologies that we can use to get to Mars, including using the moon as a refueling station.
My question is would it still be the Artemis program at that point? Like would Mars missions be like Artemis 30 or something? It would probably be a whole new program I imagine.
What I could see happening is NASA handing off moon industry to private companies and then focusing its efforts on a new program to Mars, kinda like they’ve handed off low Earth orbit to private companies now.
NASA kinda forges the new path and then private industries follow.
Especially if moon mining matures into a profitable industry, I think we’ll see a new gold rush to the moon. I did a whole video on that a while back.
And I still think it would be really cool if people and supplies could be launched from the Moon to Mars using an electromagnetic lunar mass driver.
The moon orbits the earth at 2288 miles per hour, so you’ve already got that speed working for you – a railgun could propel cargo up to speeds that you just can’t reach here on Earth because of our atmosphere, and then you could launch using only a fraction of the fuel you’d need to travel direct from Earth.
Once the infrastructure is in place to get parts to the moon and manufacture it there, which might be less energy intensive because of the 1/6 gravity… I don’t know, there’s something interesting there.
Anyway, I think we’ve reached the end of what can be called the Artemis program at this point.
How much of this will actually happen? Who knows. Like I said at the beginning, a lot of it comes down to whether or not we’re able to access and use the water ice, what kind of international competition we have, and the overall economics of the thing.
There are also questions about the sustainability of a moon presence, I mean, yes there’s a lot of water ice there but it is a finite amount. And humans gonna human.
There’s also the concern that all the landings and activity could form a dust cloud around the moon because that stuff just doesn’t behave the same up there as it does here.
But this thing does seem to be happening. And that’s exciting. I’m recording this video ahead of time but it’s scheduled to go out the same day as the new Artemis 1 launch window. On the 14th. We’ll see how that goes. I did the same thing with the last Artemis video so… yeah.
So you’re either watching this right now all pumped full of adrenaline and excited to see this future that’s happening right in front of us. Or you’re laughing at me. Again.
But I’ll just say what I’ve always said about space travel, it pushes our boundaries as a species and the spinoff technologies that are created from it benefit us here on Earth in a myriad ways.