The mission to return to the moon

It was an amazing feat 50 years ago but will we go back to the moon?
23 July 2019

Interview with 

James Carpenter, European Space Agency


Image of the Sun's halo as moon passes by


Ever since Apollo 11, 12 men in total have walked on the moon with return missions running until 1972. Now, both national and private agencies want to return to the moon but it’ll rely on collaborations across the world. So when are we going back? And will it involve humans or should we leave the work to robots? Izzie spoke with James Carpenter who works on human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency…

James - So the International Space Station has shown us what is possible when the nations of the world unite and come together, to achieve incredible and impossible things. And I think that the moon is the next place where we can do that. Where we, as a species, can go and learn what it means to go beyond Earth and learn lessons that we can apply here on Earth, to improve the situation here.

Izzie - How are people planning to return to the moon?

James - The United States, through NASA is preparing something called Orion. Orion is a spacecraft which will carry humans beyond low Earth orbit, where the space station is - where we operate today, and out into deep space for the first time since Apollo. And the European Space Agency (ESA) is very much involved in this program. We are providing something called the European service module which is at the back of the crewed part of that vehicle, and it carries things like the propulsion systems, the power systems and some life support systems. And so that vehicle will go to something called the gateway. The gateway is a crew-tended platform, kind of a space station cum spaceship or space port, which sits in deep space, in the vicinity of the moon. And it's from here that humans will go down to the lunar surface and return from the lunar surface for the first time. And this is something which is being explored by a group of countries through the International Space Station partnership to work together to achieve this and we're looking at our different roles in this scenario now.

Izzie - And so will it act as a base station for people to, you know, pop off and grab some supplies and go elsewhere?

James - The gateway’s first function as a staging point will be to access the lunar surface and come back from the lunar surface. But the great advantage of the gateway's location, is that it's nice and high in the gravity well. So, unlike from Earth where we need a lot of energy to get away from the gravitational pull of the earth, once you’re at the gateway it becomes a staging point from which we could go on to other places in the solar system. So one could envisage a future where we have vehicles being assembled around the gateway, using materials brought from Earth, and maybe even the moon - perhaps filled with propellants that have been created at the lunar surface using ice and other things found at the poles of the moon - and then going on from there to Mars. So the gateway becomes a really important element in potential future architectures for the moon, but also to more distant destinations. Exactly what that will look like, I think we can work out once we've nailed the lunar return. In the US now, there is a very strong drive to return humans to the lunar surface by 2024. And we will be looking to understand how ESA can play a role in an international lunar exploration scenario which is sustainable and has a really a long term plan.

Izzie - Is there a place for humans in that, or are we just leaving it to robotics because we don't have that risk of - you know things going wrong with us, we are human?

James - So space robotics have come on a long way. And there are tremendous things that we can do with robots. Robots however cannot substitute entirely for humans. So if we look at the science that was performed at the lunar surface 50 years ago on Apollo - what was possible in just a few days with two humans at the lunar surface, is way beyond what would be possible with any robot available today, in a much much longer time. There is no substitute for having a well-trained human in situ at the surface of the moon, or any other planet, doing science. That said, there is a role for both humans and robots. So there are some things that humans are really good at, and robots are really bad at. And there are some things that robots are really good at that you don't need humans to do. And so the challenge for us, and the exciting thing I think for everybody, is to try and find that balance between what humans can do best and what robots can do best. And trying to get the best of both worlds and to create a real partnership between human and robotic capabilities.

Izzie - It might be early days but do we know what those humans might be doing when they do return to the lunar surface?

James - Definitely. So we know a lot about the moon but there is a huge number of science questions to be addressed. I think the future of the moon is likely to look somewhat like Antarctica today. So humans now go to Antarctica to form scientific research, make measurements, travel across the surface of the earth and Antarctica taking samples. And I think something like this will be what we see at the lunar surface too. They'll also be preparing for future exploration, so testing technologies and preparing the way in that sense too. One very important theme of Lunar exploration in the coming decade or two, is going to be establishing the use of local resources for space. So, one thing's become apparent is, if we want to explore the solar system in a permanent and sustainable way then we need to learn how to use the resources that we find, where we find them. And the moon is the place where we will learn for the first time how to use resources that are available in space to meet our needs. So one example of that could be the ice at the poles of the moon. So if we can learn how to purify it, and then to use it both for life support systems - drinking water and air - but also to split it into oxygen and hydrogen, which could become propellant, then this is a capability that will be enabling for us, moving out into the solar system. And it can also make accessing and using the moon sustainable in the long term. But we also need to do this in a way which is in itself sustainable. So through learning how to do this, we can, we are always pushed to the maximum efficiency and minimum waste that is the nature of the way we engineer for space. And so in doing so we can also learn some really important lessons about resource management here on Earth and how we can manage our own resources in a more responsible and sustainable way.


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