SCIENCE. Canadian space exploration enthusiasts received a Christmas present: a Canadian astronaut would be part of the first American mission to return to orbit around the moon, in 2023. The Rumor detector explains why 2023 is actually very uncertain.
The origin of the discussion
In March 2019, NASA – the American space agency – created a surprise by announcing that it was four years earlier, from 2028 to 2024, the date of its first manned mission on the lunar surface in half a century. This announcement was the response to a challenge launched by the White House, which then criticized the agency for having become too “complacent”.
The rocket that will bring the astronauts up there, called SLS (Space Launch System) was already in preparation, as was the Orion capsule, which the astronauts will occupy. But getting ahead of it all by four years means short-circuiting the stages: the first test flight of the SLS rocket, without an astronaut, is due to take place at the end of 2021, and the first manned flight until the end of 2021. lunar orbit – without landing on the Moon – in 2023. It is in this last trip, called Artemis 2, that a Canadian astronaut would take part and it is then during Artemis 3, in 2024, that two American astronauts would disembark on the moon.
However, to meet this schedule, we will have to overcome three very big obstacles.
1) The SLS rocket is not yet ready
As in the days of the Apollo rockets, SLS will be capped with a cone-shaped capsule, inside which the astronauts will house. This one, Orion, is already assembled and the first flight without occupants is to be used to test, among other things, the temperature and air control equipment that is to keep astronauts alive.
But to get to the moon, you need a rocket much more powerful than those that put satellites into orbit. However, the new SLS, in preparation since 2011, has suffered multiple delays and budget overruns : From $ 10 billion originally planned, the project was approaching 15 billion at the end of 2019, and could exceed 18 billion even before its first flight.
Just last month, engine tests had to be interrupted two weeks, due to problems on the “tank supply equipment” side, NASA wrote. It was the 7th in a series of eight tests, which took up most of 2020. The last is planned by Jan. 17 and, if all goes well, the engine and all accompanying equipment will then be moved to Florida to assemble the rocket. His first trip, without humans on board, therefore remains officially scheduled for November 2021. But the magazine Technology Review gave on January 4 on this calendar, a chance of success of… one in 10.
2) Budgets are not up to par
When President John F. Kennedy made his famous call in May 1961 for Americans to land on the moon before the end of the decade, NASA’s budget had doubled, then doubled again the following year, then further increased, reaching in 1965 about 4.5% of the total US government budget, or 42 billion in today’s dollars.
In its latest budget proposal, tabled in September, NASA assessed that it would cost $ 28 billion between 2021 and 2025 to meet the 2024 deadline. Of which 16 billion only for the moon landing module (Human Landing System), for which three companies hope currently be chosen.
However, we are far from it: in December, in the budget of the federal government adopted for the next year, 850 million has been allocated to the development of the moon landing module.
And that’s without counting the following missions: before the deadline was moved from 2028 to 2024, the return to the Moon program mentioned several missions for the construction of a permanent habitat, and a station in orbit, Lunar Gateway, intended to serve as a crossroads for these comings and goings.
It is in this context of tight budgets that the Canadian announcement takes place: this country is committed to build the Lunar Gateway station’s “external robotic system” – the equivalent of the current space station’s “Canadarm” – and, in exchange, secure a place for one of its astronauts.
3) A change of government
It has always been clear that the 2024 deadline is a political requirement of the Trump administration. There’s no guarantee that the new president, Joe Biden, will have the same interest in rushing things. In fact, space policy experts note, on two occasions in 30 years Republican presidents have announced a resumption of the lunar program: George Bush Sr. in 1989 and George Bush Sr. in 2004. Each time the projects have died in the world. egg, for lack of adequate funding.
Mixed. The road to lunar missions remains mapped out, but the 2024 deadline seems unrealistic.
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