Neil Armstrong took his historic “one small step” to the Moon in 1969. And just three years later, the last Apollo astronauts left our celestial neighbor. Since then, hundreds of astronauts have been launched into space, but mostly to the International Space Station orbiting Earth. None has indeed ventured more than a few hundred kilometers from Earth.
The US-led Artemis program, however, aims to get humans back to the Moon this decade – with Artemis 1 on its way back to Earth as part of its first test flight, circling the Moon .
The most relevant differences between the Apollo era and the mid-2020s are a stunning improvement in computing power and robotics. Moreover, superpower rivalry can no longer justify massive expenditure, as in the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. In our recent book The End of the Astronauts, Donald Goldsmith and I argue that these changes weaken the case for the project.
The Artemis mission uses Nasa’s all-new Space Launch System, which is the most powerful rocket ever – similar in design to the Saturn V rockets 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 falling into the ocean, never to be used again. Each launch therefore has an estimated cost of between $2bn (£1.7bn) and $4bn.
Unlike its SpaceX competitor “Starship”, which allows the company to salvage and reuse the first stage.
The benefits of robotics
Advances in robotic exploration are exemplified by the Mars rover suite, 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 further allow the robots themselves to identify sites of particular interest, from which to take samples for return to Earth.
Within a decade or two, robotic exploration of the Martian surface could be almost entirely autonomous, with human presence offering little benefit. Likewise, engineering projects — like 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. Such projects can be built entirely by robots.
Instead of astronauts, who need a well-equipped place to live if they are needed for construction purposes, robots can stay permanently at their construction site. Similarly, if mining lunar soil or asteroids for rare materials becomes economically viable, it could also be done cheaply and safely with robots.
Robots could also explore Jupiter, Saturn and their fascinatingly diverse moons at little extra cost, as multi-year journeys present little more of a challenge for a robot than the six-month journey to Mars. Some of these moons may actually harbor life in their subterranean oceans.
Even if we could send humans there, it might be a bad idea because they could contaminate those worlds with microbes from Earth.
Apollo astronauts were heroes. They accepted high risks and pushed technology to its limits. By comparison, short trips to the Moon in the 2020s, despite the $90 billion cost of the Artemis program, will seem almost routine.
Something more ambitious, like a landing on Mars, will be needed to generate public excitement on the scale of Apollo. But such a mission, including supplies and the rocket for a return trip, could well cost Nasa a trillion dollars — questionable expenses when we’re facing a climate crisis and poverty on Earth. The high price is the result of a “safety culture” developed by Nasa in recent years in response to public attitudes.
This reflects the trauma and program delays that followed the Space Shuttle disasters of 1986 and 2003, which each killed all seven civilians on board. That said, the shuttle, which had 135 total launches, achieved a failure rate of less than 2%. It would be unrealistic to expect such a low failure rate for a round trip to Mars – the mission would last two whole years after all.
Astronauts simply need a lot more “maintenance” than robots – their travel and surface operations require air, water, food, living space and protection from harmful radiation. , especially against solar storms.
Already considerable for a trip to the Moon, the cost differences between human and robotic travel would increase much more for any long stay. A trip to Mars, hundreds of times further than the Moon, would not only put astronauts at far greater risk, but would also make emergency aid much less feasible. Even astronaut enthusiasts accept that almost two decades could pass before the first crewed trip to Mars.
There are sure to be thrill seekers and adventurers who would gladly accept far greater risks – some have even signed up for a one-way ticket offered in the past.
This signals a key difference between the Apollo era and today: the emergence of a strong private space technology sector, which now includes human spaceflight. Private sector companies are now in competition with NASA, so high-risk, low-cost trips to Mars, funded by billionaires and private sponsors, must be provided by willing volunteers. In the end, the public could acclaim these brave adventurers without paying them.
Given that manned spaceflight beyond low orbit is very likely to be handed over entirely to privately funded missions willing to accept high risk, it is questionable whether the multi-billion dollar Artemis project of NASA is a good way to spend government money. Artemis is ultimately more likely to be a swan song than the launch of a new Apollo era.
Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, University of Cambridge
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
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