Q&A: How does NASA expect to pull off landing first woman, next man on the Moon in 5 years?

Redditers raised many cool questions about the Artemis mission, which was moved up four years sooner than originally planned for in 2028.

The American space agency NASA has jumped onboard a fast train to its next Moon mission in 2024, which will be the first time humans have set foot on the Moon since the Apollo missions in 1960s-70s. The mission's timeline was cut short from the original 2028 plan for America's next manned mission to the Moon.

Now, with just five years to go, there are many doubts being raised about how they will meet their new, tight deadline without a tried and tested rocket and crew module. Why should people have confidence that a 2024 goal is realistic when NASA had previously said a Moon mission wasn't possible sooner than 2028?

To clear the air and answer these questions, a team of NASA engineers took to Reddit on a live 'Ask Me Anything' session on Thursday, 16 May starting at 11.30 am ET (9 pm IST).

The panel of experts included:

  • Lindsay Aitchison, Space Technologist
  • Dr Daniel Moriarty III, Postdoctoral Lunar Scientist
  • Marshall Smith, Director, Human Lunar Exploration Programs
  • LaNetra Tate, Space Tech Program Executive

Below is a curated selection of 20 questions and NASA experts' answers — highlights from the Reddit AMA session.

What is NASA doing to send humans back to the Moon in five years?

We had a plan for 2028 that involved decent element tests in 2023/2024, a full non-crewed test in 2026 and a crewed mission in 2028.

The 2028 plan would not have required an increase in NASA's budget. Moving up to 2024, however, is doable with the amended budget request and follow on funding which will be needed in the remaining years. Technically, building all the required systems will be challenging, but NASA is used to big challenges.

— Marshall Smith, Director of Human Lunar Exploration Programs at NASA.

Q&A: How does NASA expect to pull off landing first woman, next man on the Moon in 5 years?

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaking at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in August 2018. Image credit: NASA

How can someone get on one of those crews to go to the Moon? Have they already been selected and are training or are they yet to be decided?

The crew for the next lunar mission will be selected from our NASA Astronaut Corps. The Astronaut Office is already working with the engineers and scientists to conduct early tests on systems and concepts to get a jump start on training, but we haven't selected the specific women and men for the first Artemis mission just yet.

— Lindsay Aitchison, Space Technologist at NASA

What experiments are planned for surface missions on Artemis, and what's the expected duration of the mission?

NASA is currently trying to optimise the science return from the 2024 mission, given the constraints of a relatively small payload and fast turnaround time. At this point, there have been no official decisions made regarding instrumentation and experiments.

As a lunar scientist, I certainly have a few opinions about this! From the Apollo missions, we've established the incredible importance of collecting diverse samples from the lunar surface. With returned samples, we can perform analyses using any instrument in any terrestrial lab on our home planet — this is a lot more efficient than carting a bunch of mass spectrometers and electron microprobes to the Moon! I'm guessing that a lot of the instruments we bring in 2024 are going to be geared towards identifying and collecting interesting samples (handheld spectrometers, hand lenses, shovels, core tubes, sample bags, etc.).

The South Pole is geochemically very different than all of the Apollo sites, and samples we return from there could tell us a lot about the lunar mantle, funky volcanic products, and the poorly-understood differences between the lunar nearside and farside. A seismometer would also be cool, using moonquakes to help us peer into the lunar interior! This could supplement great seismic data from the Apollo missions.

I believe that this mission is going to be fairly short (a few days, perhaps), but I haven't heard anything official yet.

— Dr Daniel Moriarty III, Postdoctoral Lunar Scientist at NASA

Artist’s concept of a future moon landing carried out under NASA's newly named Artemis program. Image: NASA

Artist's concept of a future moon landing, part of NASA's Artemis program. Image: NASA

Is NASA open to using potential commercial launchers like SpaceX's Starship for missions, considering they'd be more cost-effective?

The 2024 plan includes using commercial launch vehicles to deliver the Gateway and the Human Landing System, as well as science experiments launched under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program. In addition, commercial launch vehicles will be required to deliver surface assets such as habitats, rovers and consumables. The Space Launch System will be used to deliver the Orion spacecraft and crew to the Gateway for the human missions.

Currently, the SLS is the only vehicle capable of launching Orion for longer duration, deep space exploration.

— Marshall Smith, Director of Human Lunar Exploration Programs at NASA

How will the Artemis mission succeed with NASA's commercial crew taking seven years to reach orbit and NASA's SLS years behind schedule despite a massive amount of funding? 

There are two types of risks that need to be addressed when attempting to achieve a goal. First is a technical risk. I believe that NASA and the space industry working together is capable of addressing the technical risk and making the schedule. The Apollo program achieved did not have a commercial base and in nine years landed humans on the surface of the Moon. We know a lot more and have a strong commercial base that we can leverage off of to achieve our goal by 2024. It will take more funding than currently in NASA's budget. This leads to the other risk which is political. We, as a nation, have to have the will to achieve this bipartisan goal through various administrations, changing budgets and changing priorities. Setting an aggressive goal limits this political risk.

Yes. This is challenging, but we are up to the task.

— Marshall Smith, Director of Human Lunar Exploration Programs at NASA

The Space Launch System (SLS) once developed will be NASA's most powerful rocket, but also the most powered rocket in history. It was intended for deep-space missions, including an asteroid, and ultimately to Mars. Image: NASA

The Space Launch System (SLS) once developed will be NASA's most powerful rocket, but also the most powered rocket in history. It was intended for deep-space missions, including an asteroid, and ultimately to Mars. Image: NASA

Will there be another AMA from the Moon?

Dude — that would be awesome! Anything is possible with sustained exploration... but an AMA from Mars might not be as much fun with that comm delay — up to 22 mins one way!

— Lindsay Aitchison, Space Technologist at NASA

All of the concepts I've seen for lunar landers still use two stages (with an expendable landing stage and ascent module). How long before we see single-stage landers to orbit that are fully reusable?

The size of your lander is greatly dependent upon what you want to do at your destination. Apollo was limited to short stays and the equatorial region of the Moon. Also, it was not reusable. To return to the Moon in a sustainable fashion to be able to explore it we need to carry significantly more fuel and consumables. This makes single-stage landers impractical. As there are no rockets today powerful enough to launch a single stage lander. Current launch vehicles can support two and three stage options. The key to sustainability is to enable these systems to be reusable.

There are concepts and systems in a discussion that could approach a single stage capability. However, it will be many years before these systems are a reality.

— Marshall Smith, Director of Human Lunar Exploration Programs at NASA

NASA's Orion crew vehicle flies in space while docked with a lunar lander in this NASA artist's rendering. Image credit: NASA

NASA's Orion crew vehicle flies in space while docked with a lunar lander in this NASA artist's rendering. Image credit: NASA

What data do you hope to gain from the upcoming Moon mission that could help with a future Mars mission?

Really interesting question! Preparedness for Mars exploration is one of the major themes guiding the imminent lunar missions. There are a number of ways that developing technologies and geological understanding for lunar missions enable future exploration of Mars. It's a lot easier to get to the Moon than Mars, which means that technologies we'll need to explore Mars can much more easily be developed and tested on the Moon.

For instance, I can imagine a scenario where the Moon functions as a laboratory for testing new spacesuits or habitation structures in dusty, low-gravity, low-atmosphere environments. Another important technology to develop is the ability to extract and use resources on the surface of another planet. On the Moon, we can test ways to extract and purify lunar water, which could help us reduce the amount of water that would need to be supplied from Earth. We could perfect this technology on the nearby Moon before relying on it for Mars!

— Dr Daniel Moriarty III, Postdoctoral Lunar Scientist at NASA

Would NASA send a test 3D printer to test-print structures from lunar material?

We partnered with Made In Space to send and test a 3D printer on the space station. We just delivered a Refabricator (that recycles plastic to print parts) to the space station as well. Much of what we learn on the space station, as well as testing on the ground, will help us design a system that we could utilise on the Moon to print both tools and infrastructure. All this technology feeds forward to inform us how to do more with different materials (plastics, metals, lunar soil)

— LaNetra Tate, Space Tech Program Executive at NASA

Are these missions envisioned as short stays at different locations (like Apollo) or repeat visits to the same spot with the goal of building a base (like ISS)?

We're sending up science instruments on a Commercial Landing Payload Systems and we'll be studying different parts of the Moon. Focusing on the South Pole. Our initial missions will be short duration stays focused on the South Pole or areas that show promising scientific and resource value. Depending upon what we learn in early missions, we will decide where we would like to focus our energy either in habitation or mobility (rovers).

— Marshall Smith, Director of Human Lunar Exploration Programs at NASA

What is so special about the South Pole and the surrounding area?

The South Pole is exciting because not only are we going back to the Moon, but we're sending humans where they have never been before! We already know a lot about this region because robotic missions have revealed important information about its environment. Through thousands of orbits in the last decade, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has collected the precise information about the South Pole region, offering scientists precise details about its topography, temperature and locations of likely frozen water – and water is critical to future exploration missions. You can find more information on NASA's choice of the South Pole as the landing site here.

Here's an illumination map of the moon's South pole. The Shackleton crater (19 kilometers in diameter) is in the center, and the South pole is approximately at the 9 o'clock rim of the outer circle. The map was created from images captured by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image: NASA

What are you going to do about moon dust in the spacesuits joints?

We learned a lot from the Apollo missions on how dust affects the durability of space suits. NASA is looking at a combination of passive coatings and new materials to prevent dust from collecting on the suits as well as more exotic approaches such as electrostatic pulses to actively repel the dust real-time.

— Lindsay Aitchison, Space Technologist at NASA

What's a technology you are using today that would have been the biggest help if they had it back at the time of the original Moon landings?

Apollo helped bring about the computer revolution, and I look forward to seeing what becomes possible as we come up with new space technologies in this digital age! We are partnering with DoD on High-Performance Spaceflight Computing (HPSC). It is one current technology that addresses computation performance, energy management, and fault tolerance. The entire system will be about 100 times faster than today's common computers processors.

During the Apollo program, we used a digital computer onboard each Apollo command and a lunar module. This new technology can perform 15 billion instructions per second, compared to just 85,000 instructions per second of the Apollo Guidance Computer.

— LaNetra Tate, Space Tech Program Executive at NASA

Bill Anders (holding a Hasselblad camera), an astronaut on NASA's Apollo 8 mission, recalls what he felt as he saw the Earth rise: “God, that blue looked pretty.” Image courtesy: NASA

Bill Anders (holding a Hasselblad camera), an astronaut on NASA's Apollo 8 mission, recalls what he felt as he saw the Earthrise: “God, that blue looked pretty.” Image courtesy: NASA

What kind of experiments are you planning on doing on the Moon?

The possibilities are endless! One thing we are looking into is sending a scouting robot called the Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot (PUFFER). PUFFER is an origami-inspired robot that is lightweight and capable of flattening itself. Imagine a future lunar rover having several deployable PUFFER robots. They would deploy from the parent platform and have distributed autonomous exploration of a larger area of the surface.

— LaNetra Tate, Space Tech Program Executive at NASA

What are some electronic systems that could use improvements for the Moon 2024 mission that I could potentially try to do as my senior year project?

Hello, from a fellow electrical engineer! We need good electrical engineers engaged in developing avionics, guidance navigation and control systems and communication systems. I couldn't point you to a specific need, but these are areas that constantly need improvement. Good luck with your studies!

— Marshall Smith, Director of Human Lunar Exploration Programs at NASA

How many astronauts are gonna be there simultaneously? And how long will they stay?

The initial missions will have up to four astronauts going to the Gateway with at least two descending to the surface for up to 6.5 days.

— Lindsay Aitchison, Space Technologist at NASA

Dr Moriarty, aren't you afraid of Sherlock thwarting your plans? Also, what would be the first stage of preparing the surface for human inhabitants?

DRATS! Foiled again!

I don't think we're going to be able to change anything about the surface of the Moon much. Instead, I think it makes sense to work within some of the structures and resources that are already there. For instance, it could be useful to establish a base near a permanently-shadowed polar region in order to take advantage of surface water that's there. Alternatively, it could be interesting to set up shop within a pre-existing lava tube, which could provide astronauts with some shielding from temperature variations and incoming solar radiation. There are lots of cool possibilities!

— Dr Daniel Moriarty III a.k.a Sherlock's archnemesis

The epic photo of the bootprint captured by Armstrong during NASA's Apollo 11 in 1969. Image courtesy: NASA

The epic photo of the bootprint captured by Armstrong during NASA's Apollo 11 in 1969. Image courtesy: NASA

What's the long term goal regarding a sustained human presence i.e. what are the main benefits?

The primary goal of going to the Moon is to test the technologies and strategies needed for human exploration of Mars. The farther humans venture into space, the more critical it becomes to manufacture materials and products with local resources. The Moon will allow us to practice that increased crew autonomy as the astronauts learn to work with robotic partners and "live off the land" with less dependence on Mission Control.

Additional benefits of exploring the Moon are that it helps to expand US global economic impact by growing US industry and international partnerships, and it will provide opportunities for groundbreaking science and technology development which will inspire the next generation to careers in STEM.

— Lindsay Aitchison, Space Technologist at NASA

Lunar soil collected from Apollo 17 displayed in the National Museum of Natural History in . Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Lunar soil collected from Apollo 17 displayed in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Are you guys looking at using Kilopower on the surface?

We are looking to utilise surface power on the Moon. We are exploring several options for the surface to include solar arrays, batteries and fission surface power. We are currently working with the Department of Energy to develop safe and reliable systems that build on the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) funded Kilopower project.

— LaNetra Tate, Space Tech Program Executive at NASA

Why does it seem as if there are no plans for a reusable lunar transfer vehicle and reusable descent/ascent vehicles? It seems very unsustainable to always send all your equipment and vehicles in one go each time

We intend for the lunar system to eventually be fully reusable. The initial system may not be reusable but will evolve in the course of a few years. The ascent element and transfer element will be the first reusable elements. Descent elements could be reusable should we find and be able to produce fuel on the lunar surface. The Gateway will provide the capability to enable reusability by allowing the lander to aggregate at the Gateway and then perform maintenance activities between missions.

— Marshall Smith, Director of Human Lunar Exploration Programs at NASA

What would a human be able to do in addition to what rovers can already do?

This is a subject of frequent discussion across planetary science. From the Apollo missions, we saw the huge benefits of having boots on the ground. For instance, Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt was a trained geologist at the time of the mission. The insight he provided from the lunar surface was invaluable in terms of identifying what samples to prioritise, and establishing the geological context for those samples. In general, humans offer much better decision-making, intuition and mobility than current rovers are capable of.

I think there are huge benefits from a coordinated program of rover and human explorers. Rovers excel at exploring new, dangerous and distant areas. Going forward, I think there is going to be great synergy between rovers and humans in our continuing exploration of the solar system.

— Dr Daniel Moriarty III, Postdoctoral Lunar Scientist at NASA

China's Jade Rabbit-2 rover makes its first wheel tracks on the far side of the moon on 3 January, 2019, after rolling down from the Chang'e 4 lander. Image courtesy: CNSA

China's Jade Rabbit-2 rover makes its first wheel tracks on the far side of the moon on 3 January, 2019, after rolling down from the Chang'e 4 lander. Image courtesy: CNSA

Are you planning any very special and sophisticated equipment to extract water?

Under normal conditions, water ice is not stable at the lunar surface. The only place we expect to find significant amounts of water ice is in permanently shadowed regions at the poles, where the absurdly low temperatures trap ice over long timescales. A few recent experiments and analyses (for instance, the LCROSS mission and data from the Moon Mineralogy Mapper) demonstrate that there is a lot of water in these permanently shadowed regions. Accessing this water seems to be a high priority going forward, but as of right now there aren't any specific strategies or instruments that have been officially designated for this task.

Are lunar spacesuits going to be ready for a 2024 landing?

Yes. Space suits are critical to our plans for human lunar exploration. NASA has been investing in surface space suit technology for several years, including test runs with multiple prototype designs in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory and vacuum testing of an exploration portable life support system. We're still evaluating specific design options, but the technologies are ready for integration to meet a 2024 mission.

— Lindsay Aitchison, Space Technologist at NASA

Is it possible to gather and "print" shelters like on the Moon like it's been planned for on Mars?

We are looking at ways to 3D print (or additively construct) structures on the Moon, using lunar soil. Constructing landing pads (to mitigate dust plume effects), small shelters, and more are all possibilities. We have recently concluded the Additive Construction for Mobile Emplacement (ACME) effort that focused on the construction of both 2D and 3D infrastructure needed for planetary surfaces. We are engaging communities outside of NASA in this effort as well. One way is with NASA's prize challenges and competitions. Check out the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge to learn more.

— LaNetra Tate, Space Tech Program Executive at NASA

The questions (and not the answers) have been edited for succinctness and style from the original Reddit Verified AMA thread.

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