The Current·Q&A

Artemis mission will chart the next era of space exploration: former NASA adviser

While NASA’s first phase of its Artemis program may be on hold for a few days, John Logsdon says we are still approaching another major leap forward in the exploration of space, one that he says will define the value of future projects.

NASA will attempt to launch its 'mega moon rocket' again this Friday

NASA's massive Space Launch System (SLS) sits at launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Atop the rocket sits the Orion spacecraft that will return humans to the moon. (Don Hladiuk)

While NASA's first phase of its Artemis program may be on hold for a few days, John Logsdon says we are still on the doorstep of another major leap forward in the exploration of space that will define the value of future projects. 

NASA planned to launch a rocket to the moon on Monday, but a number of issues meant it would have to wait until Friday to take that next step forward.

The Artemis program, named after Apollo's twin sister in Greek mythology, aims to send humans to the moon, and eventually Mars. This week's launch will be an unmanned flight, but in the next phase of the project, set to launch in 2024 or 2025, NASA will send four astronauts to orbit the moon, including a Canadian.

But the program has been accompanied by a big price tag. According to a report by NASA's Office of Inspector General, the Artemis program will cost a total of $93 billion US ($121 billion Cdn) between 2012 and 2025 and each launch will cost $4.1 billion US ($5.3 billion Cdn). 

Logsdon says this journey to the stars will tell us how worthwhile our space endeavours will be going forward. He's the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a former member of the NASA advisory council.

He spoke with The Current guest host Susan Bonner about the Artemis program. Here's part of that conversation.

What are your feelings about the idea that others are now going back [to the moon]? 

Well, I think it's well past time. I'm excited about the next round of human exploration. I hope it won't be like Apollo where, because it was a race and we won the race, we stopped racing. 

I hope this is something that humans will continue to do into the indefinite future, as long as we get out there and find that it's worth being there. 

The Orion spacecraft, which will carry yeast experiments to deep space, sits atop NASA's Artemis 1 rocket in June 2022 at the Kennedy Space Center. (John Raoux/The Associated Press)

How [will] the Artemis mission, in its three phases, differ from the Apollo mission? 

Well, the idea is to build up to long-term stays on the surface of the moon, a better capability to move around, to rove on the surface, and eventually to build permanent or semi-permanent habitats, so people, kind of on the model of Antarctica, can stay there for long durations. 

And what is the significance of that? Why is that important?

Well, we did not really explore the moon during Apollo. All six landings were near the lunar equator. It's as if we explored the Earth, but only went to Brazil. 

We're going to explore different regions. And the hope is that we will discover that the water ice that's frozen in the shadows of the craters at the poles is something that we can extract and use to support human activity — and ultimately, settlement. 

What could  the permanent establishment of a base on the moon lead to? 

Well, it could lead to using the resources of the moon to support a kind of scientific outposts.

We've been having people spend time, even year-round, in Antarctica for the better part of a century now. And I think being on the moon will be similar to that.

I don't see the idea of — although some do — of large-scale industrial build-up or a wide range of human activity. I think it's exploring the moon, doing what's worth doing on the moon and getting ready to go to Mars. 

Can you outline for us, the connection between a base on the moon and further exploration of Mars? 

Well, I think it's mainly getting experience, testing the equipment you'll need for eventual bases on Mars. We're not going to go to the moon to launch to Mars [from the moon's surface]. Some people seem to have that impression.

Because that would mean landing on the moon and having to overcome the lunar gravity in your launch out to Mars. So it's really a test for long duration human activity off the surface of the Earth. 

This diagram illustrates the path the Artemis II astronauts will take when they orbit the moon. (NASA)

There's been a debate about space exploration as long as there's been the idea of space exploration. How do you think that debate has changed with the projects that you've just outlined and overall? 

There's still the debate of whether we should be spending public money — a pretty high amount of public money — on doing something like this when there are all the problems on Earth. 

My response to that is, is this is a very small percentage — less than one half of one per cent — of the U.S. budget that's going into the space program, and a smaller portion of that that's going into Artemis and exploration. 

So I think it's something that humans should do because humans can do [it]. It gives us a sense of the future, sense of potential, and makes life exciting and worth living. 

There are people who say that life is pretty much a big struggle on the planet right now and that $4.1 billion for every one of these rockets [to launch] is just a little too much, [that] we should let private industry pick up more of the tab. 

Well, I think there has to be a reason for private industry. But we have not established that there is a profit making activity connected to human exploration. 

This next round of exploration will answer those questions: Is there something to be done on the moon, on Mars, that will create a return on investment so that the private sector can do it? 

What are your thoughts on that? 

I think it's speculative. I make the joke that there is no wine on Mars and no chance of growing any. So, what would be the businesses that would support a million-person economy on Mars? I don't think that question has really been answered. 

NASA hopes the Artemis program will chart the first steps to eventually sending people to Mars. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

You say we should do this because we can do this. How do you describe the ongoing allure of space? 

Well, first of all, it's clearly not universal. Some people find it boring or not worth doing. But I think enough people, certainly including me, think that the extension of human experience to visiting other bodies in the solar system, to maybe staying there for long durations, is something that makes us human — to expand and extend our experience in being there. 

When you look to the next 50 years, what do you see? 

I see finding out whether we are a species that wants to explore our solar system. And I won't say "and beyond." The distances are so great that I find it very hard to conceive of travelling beyond our little corner of this galaxy, of the millions of galaxies where we're seeing with the Webb telescope

So I think it's making us maybe a multi-planet species. 


Produced by Shyloe Fagen. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Philip Drost is a journalist with the CBC. You can reach him on Twitter @phildrost or by email at philip.drost@cbc.ca.

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