Humans haven’t set foot on the moon in more than a half century, but NASA’s Artemis program is going to send them back with a series of missions beginning in early September. When the first astronaut plants her boots in the lunar soil in 2025 as part of Artemis III, assuming the current schedule holds, it will be the start of an even more ambitious project than sending humans back to the moon: NASA plans to construct a base camp somewhere among the gray dust and craggy rocks of the moon’s south pole.
This lunar outpost will allow the Artemis missions to eventually shatter Apollo 17’s record for longest stay on the moon (74 hours, 59 minutes, 38 seconds), while serving as a jumping off point for in-depth exploration.
NASA says the camp is going to start small, only facilitating missions of a week or two, but as the camp grows in size and sophistication the agency hopes to sustain crews for up to two months at a time. Current plans call for a lunar cabin, an open-top rover similar to the kind used in the Apollo missions and something akin to an RV that would provide mobility while allowing astronauts to live and work away from the base for days or weeks at a time.
“On each new trip, astronauts are going to have an increasing level of comfort with the capabilities to explore and study more of the Moon than ever before,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for human spaceflight at NASA, in a statement. “With more demand for access to the moon, we are developing the technologies to achieve an unprecedented human and robotic presence 240,000 miles from home. Our experience on the moon this decade will prepare us for an even greater adventure in the universe—human exploration of Mars.”
Central to NASA’s vision for the Artemis Base Camp is finding and extracting resources from the moon itself. This will lighten the load of rockets blasting off from Earth with supplies and potentially allow astronauts to remain on the moon for longer periods of time. These resources may include water ice, oxygen, metals or building materials made from lunar dust or rocks.
Since the Artemis program’s introduction in 2019, its timeline has stretched out a bit. The original plan was to set up the first iteration of the base camp by 2030, but an internal planning document obtained by the outlet Ars Technicasuggests it may be more like 2034. That might seem like a long way off, but around the world teams of scientists and engineers are already hard at work to make the dream of humans living on the moon a reality. We talked to some of these experts and learned four things about the Artemis Moon Base.
NASA will seek out crucial resources at the lunar south pole site
A south pole location for the lunar base offers astronauts two crucial ingredients: periods of continuous light from the sun and deep craters with depths that have been shrouded in darkness for billions of years. Because of the way the moon is tilted relative to the sun, its south pole experiences periods of up to two months of continuous light each year, with the sun circling just above the horizon the whole time. All this sunlight can provide the Artemis Base Camp with ample solar power. NASA is currently exploring designs that hold a solar array more than 30 feet in the air to make the most of the available sunlight, says Prasun Desai, the deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.
The same tilt that creates months of continuous illumination at the lunar poles also means some of its craters have shadowed areas that haven’t seen the sun since the crater’s formation. These super-cold, super-dark craters, known as permanently shadowed regions, are where scientists have found evidence of water ice. If this frozen water turns out to be accessible and plentiful it will be hugely valuable for residents of Artemis Base Camp and for supplying flights back to Earth or on to Mars. (Water can also fuel space travel because it can be turned into propellant.)
That said, NASA can’t guarantee that the water ice on the moon is plentiful, accessible or free of contaminants that would require extensive refining to remove. These pieces of information along with the location of the largest deposits are going to be the subject of various NASA efforts including the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER. This mobile robot is expected to arrive to the lunar South Pole to search for water sometime in late 2024.
But if the water present on the moon turns out to be a non-starter upon further investigation, Ben Bussey, who leads NASA’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative based at Johns Hopkins University, says the key to establishing a lunar base camp will shift to lowering the cost of rocketing payloads between Earth and the moon. In other words, bringing everything needed to construct and supply the base from Earth to the moon would need to get a lot cheaper to be feasible.
A new rover will let astronauts explore the moon without leaving base camp
The lunar terrain vehicle (LTV) will be the first big step toward establishing a base camp; it is scheduled to arrive on a mission sometime after Artemis III in 2025.
Greg Chavers, the director for the Technical Integration Office in NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, says it will be possible to operate the new moon-buggy remotely and that the rover will also have some ability to autonomously avoid hazards like rocks and craters. This will allow astronauts to explore the lunar environment from the safety of a lander on earlier missions, and from the base camp on later missions. This also means that NASA can use the LTV to continue to conduct scientific or mission-related work even when no humans are on the moon. With or without a person behind the wheel, the LTV is going to be critical for searching out water ice and other lunar resources, which will in turn help NASA select the best site for the more permanent elements of the base camp.
Astronauts will be able to explore the moon without spacesuits
While the LTV’s autonomy and remote-controlled capabilities are powerful innovations, its fundamental design isn’t likely to deviate much from the rovers that have come before it. To drive the open-top LTV, astronauts need to don their spacesuits, and that’s where NASA’s concept for a lunar mobile home enters wholly uncharted territory from an engineering standpoint.
NASA’s RV-like concept, dubbed the habitable mobility platform, will have a pressurized interior with life support systems, meaning passengers can safely ride inside without spacesuits on. This makes life easier for the astronauts, as putting on a spacesuit can take hours and isn’t always comfortable, and it also means that crewed forays across the lunar surface can last longer and travel farther than ever before. In unpressurized rovers like the LTV, mission duration is limited by how long the oxygen in each astronaut’s spacesuit lasts.
The final design for the RV hasn’t been decided on, so experts can’t say what it will look like, but the goal is to allow multiple astronauts to live and work inside the vehicle for up to two weeks.
Chavers says the habitable mobility platform will be delivered to the moon between one and three Artemis missions after the LTV’s debut. At the conclusion of the habitable mobility platform’s first mission Chavers says the vehicle will remain on the moon for use in future missions.
Moon rocks and lunar dust could shape the base camp’s appearance
The lunar cabin seems poised to capture the imaginations of the world, as science fiction has been conjuring what dwellings in space might look like for generations. While the design has not been finalized, Chavers says NASA is looking at modular and inflatable structures as ways of creating larger habitable spaces on the moon that are compact and lightweight in transit.
Another intriguing possibility Chavers mentioned is a large-scale 3-D printer that uses moon dust or rock as its raw material. He says a machine like this could manufacture bricks or other shapes and either assemble a dwelling from scratch or augment one brought from Earth. Indeed, Chavers says a 3-D printer prototype is currently building a test structure in Houston.
Clive Neal, a geologist at the University of Notre Dame who has studied lunar dust samples, says moon dust or rock may have an especially key role to play in shielding astronauts from radiation from cosmic rays and solar flares. Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field filter out most of this harmful radiation, but the moon has no atmosphere and no magnetosphere so any humans lingering there need extra protection. Neal says up to six feet of lunar material may be required to provide astronauts sufficient protection from radiation, which at high doses can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer.
Beyond harvesting water and building materials from the moon, NASA is also looking to extract oxygen, which is surprisingly plentiful in moon rocks, and metals like aluminum, says Desai. This is all part developing an ability to “live off the land” on the moon that could make a base there more self-sufficient and help it serve as a resupply station for spacecraft bound for Mars. But as humanity redefines its relationship with the moon, National Air and Space Museum curator Teasel Muir-Harmony wonders if it might be cause for reflection.
As Muir-Harmony relates, upon seeing our home planet rise over the lunar horizon, Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders famously remarked: “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.” Now, she says, “NASA keeps using the word ‘sustainable’ in relation to the base camp concept, and I wonder if trying to use lunar resources to make our presence on the moon sustainable might make us think differently about the sustainability of our presence here on Earth.”