Artemis I may be the last mission for NASA astronauts. why here

Artemis I may be the last mission for NASA astronauts.  why here

Robotic exploration of the Martian surface could be almost completely autonomous.

Neil Armstrong took his historic “one small step” on the Moon in 1969. And exactly three years later, the last Apollo astronauts left our celestial neighbor. Since then, hundreds of astronauts have been launched into space, but mainly to the Earth-orbiting International Space Station. In fact, none have traveled more than a few hundred kilometers from Earth.

However, the US-led Artemis program aims to return humans to the Moon this decade – with Artemis 1 returning to Earth as part of its first test flight, going around the Moon.

The most relevant difference between the Apollo era and the mid-2020s is an amazing improvement in computer power and robotics. Furthermore, superpower rivalry could not justify the massive expenditure as Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. In our recent book “The End of Astronauts,” Donald Goldsmith and I argue that these changes undermine the project’s case.

The Artemis mission is using NASA’s brand new Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built — similar in design to the Saturn V rocket that sent a dozen Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Like its predecessors, the Artemis booster combines liquid hydrogen and oxygen to create enormous lifting power before plunging into the ocean, never to be used again. Each launch is therefore estimated to cost between $2 billion (£1.7 billion) and $4 billion.

This is in contrast to its SpaceX competitor “Starship”, which enables the company to recover and reuse a first stage.

benefits of robotics

Progress in robotic exploration is exemplified by the suite of rovers on Mars, where Perseverance, NASA’s latest prospector, can drive itself through rocky terrain with only limited guidance from Earth. Improvements in sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) will enable the robots themselves to identify particularly interesting sites from which to collect samples for return to Earth.

Within the next decade or two, robotic exploration of the Martian surface could be almost completely autonomous, with human presence providing little benefit. Similarly, engineering projects – such as astronomers’ dream of building a large radio telescope on the far side of the Moon, free from interference from Earth – no longer require human intervention. The construction of such projects could be done entirely by robots.

Instead of astronauts who need a well-furnished place to live, robots can permanently reside at their work site if they are needed for construction purposes. Similarly, if mining the lunar soil or asteroids for rare materials becomes economically viable, this too could be done more cheaply and safely with robots.

Robots could also explore Jupiter, Saturn and their fascinatingly diverse moons with little additional expense, as a journey of several years presents a slightly greater challenge for a robot than a six-month trip to Mars. Some of these moons may actually harbor life in their sub-surface oceans.

Even if we could send humans there, it might be a bad idea because they could contaminate these worlds with microbes from Earth.

risk management

The Apollo astronauts were heroes. He accepted the high risk and limited the technology. In comparison, short trips to the Moon will seem almost routine in the 2020s, despite the $90 billion cost of the Artemis program.

Something more ambitious, such as landing on Mars, would be necessary to achieve Apollo-scale public enthusiasm. But such a mission, including provisions and the rocket for the return trip, could cost NASA a trillion dollars — questionable spending when we’re dealing with the climate crisis and poverty on Earth. The result is a “safety culture” developed by NASA in recent years in response to public concerns.

It reflects the trauma and resulting program delays that followed the Space Shuttle disasters in 1986 and 2003, which each killed seven civilians. That said, the shuttle, which had a total of 135 launches, achieved a failure rate of less than two percent. It would be unrealistic to expect such a low rate for failure of a return trip to Mars – the mission would after all last two full years.

Astronauts require far more “maintenance” than robots – their travel and surface operations require air, water, food, living space and protection from harmful radiation, especially from solar storms .

While travel to the Moon is already substantial, the cost difference between human and robotic travel would be too large for any long-term stay. Traveling to Mars hundreds of times farther than the Moon would not only put astronauts at far greater risk, but also make emergency assistance less feasible. Even astronaut enthusiasts acknowledge that nearly two decades may pass before the first crewed trip to Mars.

There will certainly be thrill-seekers and adventurers who willingly accept far more risk – some have even signed up for the one-way journeys offered in the past.

It signals a key difference between the Apollo era and today: the emergence of a strong, private space-technology sector, which now embraces human spaceflight. Private-sector companies are now competitors with NASA, so high-risk, low-cost trips to Mars, funded by billionaires and private sponsors, can be staffed by willing volunteers. Finally the public could cheer on these brave adventurers without paying for them.

Given that human spaceflight beyond low orbit is likely to shift entirely to privately-funded missions prepared to accept higher risk, it is questionable whether NASA’s multi-billion-dollar Artemis project will meet the government’s expectations. A good way to spend money. Artemis is ultimately more likely to be a swansong than the launch of a new Apollo era.Conversation

Martin Rees, Professor Emeritus of Cosmology and Astrophysics, Cambridge University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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