Getting into space with Artemis

| November 1, 2019

Last week was an important one for the global space community. The annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC) was held in Washington DC from 21 to 25 October.

And this year’s not only the 70th for the IAC, but also the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission’s landing on the moon. The theme of the 2019 IAC was ‘Space: The power of the past, the promise of the future’.

The future focus at the conference centred on a return to human space exploration beyond low-earth orbit (LEO). The key message was that the US is now heading back to the moon under NASA’s Artemis program.

The plan is for Artemis 3 to land in the Aikten Basin in the moon’s south polar region by the second half of 2024. That mission will bring US astronauts back to the lunar surface for the first time since December 1972, put the first woman on the moon, and begin the establishment of a long-term permanent human presence there throughout the 2020s as a step towards crewed missions to Mars by 2035.

As part of Artemis, NASA plans to establish the Gateway space platform in lunar orbit to support multiple missions across the surface over a 15-year period.

Australia has a key role to play in the next era of human space travel and exploration—to the moon, to Mars and beyond. The Australian Space Agency and our growing commercial space sector were well represented at the IAC.

We’re a new space power that’s rapidly making up for lost time since the decline of early Australian space activities in the 1960s, so our progress is of interest to the international space community.

Just before the conference, the Australian Space Agency signed an agreement with NASA to provide direct support for Artemis. As part of that initiative, the Australian government will provide funding of $150 million for our space industry sector. This will enable Australian companies to play a role in supporting lunar missions on Gateway and on the surface.

Australia has traditionally had a ground-based space program, providing a ‘suitable piece of real estate’ (to borrow from the late Desmond Ball) for space tracking and space situational awareness facilities in support of other nations’ activities in orbit.

While the ground segment is important, our fixation on limiting our activities to the earth’s surface is changing, and now there’s intense interest in—and government support for—Australian commercial space companies delivering a space segment, including locally produced satellites and commercial space launches.

NASA’s return to the moon, with international partners like Australia supporting that endeavour, will open up new opportunities for Australian companies to develop new services to directly support operations on the lunar surface and in cislunar space (around the moon).

There’s huge potential for Australian companies to undertake commercial resupply of NASA lunar bases as well as Gateway, in much the same way that commercial space companies are now directly supporting the International Space Station in LEO.

For example, an Australian space launch provider could send payloads into orbit from either Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory or Whalers Way in South Australia.

And, under the agreement with the New Zealand government signed at the IAC, Australia can also potentially contract out to Rocket Labs to launch from the North Island.

That agreement is likely to spur Australian space launch companies to work hard to ensure that they’re competitive for launch contracts. From LEO, with additional rocket stages, payloads can easily be sent on to lunar orbit and to the lunar surface.

The vision of Australia as a space power launching our own spacecraft on our own launch vehicles from our own launch sites and landing on the moon is a far cry from the inaction that characterised our approach to space for much of the past decades. The transformation of our approach to space is timely, deep and inspiring.

The second big take-away from the IAC is the rapid growth of the commercial space sector as a cutting-edge innovator. The key commercial space actors all presented at plenary meetings.

Jeff Bezos from Blue Origin highlighted his vision for humanity as a spacefaring species, as did SpaceX. Bezos emphasised ‘millions of people living in space’ on space colonies, while SpaceX talked about lunar and Mars colonies, and its Starship vehicle as the means to build them.

These two big ‘new space’ giants will lead, but their approach is now being emulated by many smaller companies. A common theme is the importance of reusable rocket technology to reduce cost to orbit and improve responsive launch. Reusability is being embraced by New Zealand’s Rocket Lab, Firefly Aerospace, and even Chinese commercial space start-ups.

This contrasts with NASA’s approach of sticking with big expendable rockets such as the Space Launch System that’s the basis for getting Artemis to the moon. The risk is that delays and cost overruns in delivering the system could delay the Artemis schedule for a 2024 landing, as could the current presidential impeachment battle.

The potential to extend the plan out to 2028 is there, but, as NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine noted, the longer the delay, the greater the political risk that Artemis could be cancelled.

This is why the rapidly growing commercial space sector remains important globally and for Australia: it can act as a backup if NASA can’t deliver the SLS on time for Artemis 3 in late 2024.

The Australian Space Agency’s primary role is to encourage the growth of our commercial space sector—it isn’t a mini-NASA down under that builds rockets and satellites and flies missions.

The Australian government now has a golden opportunity to assist our commercial space sector in expanding its ability to not only participate in humanity’s next great adventure but be competitive and prosperous in coming decades.

The return to the moon and the next steps—to Mars in the 2030s and perhaps beyond in subsequent decades—are a journey that’s just beginning. Australia is well positioned to play a vital role in this most important endeavour.

This article was published by The Strategist.

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