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Fifty years ago today, astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the surface of the moon. Now, for the first time since the Apollo program ended in 1972, NASA is planning an ambitious launch in 2024 to return astronauts to the moon, and to sustain a human presence there by 2028. Hari Sreenivasan reports from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Earlier this month, NASA tested a key safety system on its new Orion spacecraft in the sky above Florida.
In a simulated emergency, the spacecraft aborted a take-off and split off from the speeding rocket; propelling itself safely away.
The test was a key milestone in NASA's ambitious plan to return astronauts to the moon.
Mark Kirasich is the NASA Program Manager for Orion at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
You look at it from the outside and you say, "boy, that's the same shape as Apollo." And it is. And the reason it is because we learned the Apollo guys had the shape right. But you look underneath the skin and just about every other aspect of Orion is different.
Kirasich took me inside a full-scale model of the spacecraft that NASA uses to study how the crew interacts with the ship and its systems.
Come on in and watch your step and welcome to the inside of an Orion spacecraft.
So four people are going to ride in this?
Yes, yes. And by the capsule standards our astronaut team will tell you this is quite a roomy spacecraft.
This is roomy?
This is roomy. You also have to remember in space everything is a floor. Everything is a ceiling. So you can sleep on the walls you can walk on the ceiling.
The Orion is built by aerospace company Lockheed Martin and it's designed to support a crew for weeks at a time.
Snake your way in like this.
And unlike the spacecrafts used in the Apollo missions, it's flexible for astronauts of all sizes.
These seats, this cockpit's designed for what we call 5 percent female, a very small woman to a ninety fifth percentile male, a very large man.
The Orion capsule is key part of NASA's Artemis program. Named after the twin sister of the Greek god Apollo, Artemis will be a sequence of missions starting with a flight with no crew in 2020, a flight with a crew in 2022 that will orbit the moon, and then a 2024 mission that will land humans on the moon's south pole.
Unlike the Apollo program, Artemis aims to establish a sustained presence on the moon, and set the stage for further exploration to Mars.
Jeff Radigan is the lead flight director for Artemis 2, the first flight with astronauts in 2022.
It's really a stepping stone. One mission after the other building on capability.
OK so some people are gonna watch it and say look we did that 50 years ago why do it again? Why go back?
You know we haven't been back to the moon in 50 years and it's out there waiting for us it's out there with so much we've discovered over the last 50 years with the unmanned spacecraft that have gone on there really gives us the opportunity to go back and then stay there.
Radigan points to the 2009 discovery of water on the moon as a key resource to support long-term habitation and future exploration. It could be harvested to drink, turned into oxygen for breathing, and the hydrogen it contains could be used as rocket fuel.
The end of the Apollo lunar missions in 1972, did not mark the end of astronauts in space for NASA. The space shuttle program flew 135 missions between 1981 and 2011. Its successes included launching scientific instruments like the Hubble Telescope and helping build the International Space Station, or ISS.
But the program also suffered two catastrophes that killed 14 astronauts: the Challenger, which blew-up just after lift-off in 1986, and the Columbia, which disintegrated reentering the Earth's atmosphere in 2003.
Since the shuttle program ended, NASA has relied on the Russian Soyuz rocket to transport astronauts to the ISS, and private companies, like SpaceX, to carry supplies and hardware.
Meanwhile, the space station has been continuously occupied by an international group of astronauts since November 2000.
We've learned how to live and work in space for very long periods of duration. We, we've learned how to keep people healthy, how to exercise the kinds of foods to take so people can survive on very long missions in space.
So we take those lessons and we say this is what it's going to take if you want to live on the moon and work on the moon?
Yes correct. While we are in lower orbit, we're still only a couple hours away, we're just a couple hundred miles away from Earth. Now these missions were about to embark on are hundreds of thousands of miles away, five day trips. There is no two hour emergency ride home to Earth. So we have to learn how to become less reliant on the earth.
Whether or not America should embark on a new moon mission has been subject to changing political forces.
In 2004, President George W. Bush directed NASA to return to the moon. But in 2010, the Obama administration scrapped the mission for being over budget and behind schedule, focusing instead on a future mission to mars. In 2017, the Trump administration pivoted back to the moon, targeting 2028 for the mission.
Then earlier this year, the administration sped up the timetable.
Vice President Mike Pence:
It is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the Moon within the next five years.
What happens when you scoot up the deadline? That's a lot of pressure on the engineers and everyone else that was planning on something way down the line, right?
You know it changes your schedule obviously. There's always gonna be pressure to get your job done as well as you can. But that's balanced by having the resources to do it right. And so I think we've done a pretty good job at NASA of trying to explain that equation to the administration and to say absolutely we can support 2024 we'd love to support 2024. We're all on board with that. Now here's how we would do it and here's the resources it would take to get there.
So do you have the resources that you need now?
So I appreciate the administrator you know working with Congress and the administration to get the resources right. And I applaud the administrator for saying that's going to take more money and I know that folks are working very hard to make that happen.
NASA believes it will take an additional 4 to 6 billion dollars a year over the next five years, on top of its roughly 21 billion dollar annual budget to meet the 2024 lunar deadline. Taking that potential increase into account, the agency's budget is around half of one percent of all federal spending.
While that may sound like a lot, NASA is actually trying to do more with less. At the height of the Apollo program in the mid-1960s, federal spending on NASA accounted for roughly four percent of the budget.
Adding to financial pressure, NASA has been plagued with cost overruns on several key components, including the space launch system, or SLS, the large rocket that will send the Orion spacecraft into lunar space.
A 2018 Inspector General report found that Boeing, which is making the SLS rocket, will likely spend nearly double the budgeted amount, while delivering the rocket more than two and a half years late.
Mark Kirasich says NASA needs to find a way to entice private industry to invest in space exploration.
So right now we're working on commercializing the International Space Station. Tourist sorts of things, scientific endeavors. And the moon offer some special opportunities. Mining on the moon. So there can be businesses that take advantage and that's and that's what we're trying to do. Find businesses, motivate businesses that can then make a profit by flying space missions.
You know mining operations on the moon. I mean it seems so sci fi but who gets to mine the Moon? I mean are we doing this as humanity, as one species so to speak together or are we doing it as countries? Are we doing this as companies?
Well we'll have to develop the laws, the international laws and we'll have to work those sorts of things out. Those are legal questions. I'm still working on the engineering problems.
Kirasich may be focusing on engineering problems, but the fact is space exploration is no longer just a two person race between the United States and the Soviet Union, as it was known in the '60s. Space agencies in Europe, Japan, and India, have also sent probes to the moon. Most recently, China landed a rover on the far side of the moon in January.
Fifty years ago in the sprint to get to the moon, it was really just two runners. Now in this marathon that is space exploration, you've got a lot more runners coming in. What does that do to the race?
You know not everybody is going the same place as the first thing I'll tell you right. It really opens up the options for more runners to run different races to use your analogy I have no doubt that there'll be some competition involved and competition can be a healthy thing. The more countries that want to go to the moon and out into the solar system the better. We just need to ensure that deal at least not working against each other even if we're not working together.
Are you optimistic about that?
I am. I think we've got I think the hazards are so great and the cost of failure is so high that folks are incentivized to work together.
Despite the promise of more cooperation in space exploration, countries, including the United States, still want to be first. and sending astronauts to Mars is clearly the next big milestone. It's a goal that President Trump made explicit earlier this month.
President Donald Trump:
Someday soon, we will plant the American flag on Mars.
You want everybody looking up at the views of the spacecraft.
NASA flight director Jeff Radigan says the agency is well positioned to eventually send astronauts to the red planet.
Where I see us in 20 years is taking that first trip to Mars where I see us in 40 years is doing the same thing around Mars that we're doing around the moon today which is having that permanent presence having those folks there for a year or more and just continuing out into the solar system.
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Hari Sreenivasan joined the PBS NewsHour in 2009. He is the Anchor of PBS NewsHour Weekend and a Senior Correspondent for the nightly program.
Sam Weber has covered everything from living on minimum wage to consumer finance as a shooter/producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior joining NH Weekend, he previously worked for Need to Know on PBS and in public radio. He’s an avid cyclist and Chicago Bulls fan.
Connie Kargbo has been working in the media field since 2007 producing content for television, radio, and the web. As a field producer at PBS NewsHour Weekend, she is involved in all aspects of the news production process from pitching story ideas to organizing field shoots to scripting feature pieces. Before joining the weekend edition of PBS Newshour, Connie was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand where she trained Thai English teachers.
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