INTERVIEW. Space: “Artemis I is the first step that will allow us to walk on the Moon again”

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The Artemis program begins today: a new era of lunar exploration is upon us. For the first launch, which was to take place this afternoon, Oliver Sanguy, rapporteur on the subjects of space exploration at the Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse, explains the interest in this mission.

The beginning of a revolution is underway. The first phase of the Artemis mission will take place on Monday, August 29. For the first time, a return to the Moon is predicted. At 2:33 p.m., the Artemis I rocket was to launch into the sky. To explain to all of us the importance of this mission, Olivier Sanguy, responsible for space news at the Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse, answers our questions.

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Olivier Sanguy
Marie-Ange Sanguy

What will this mission be used for?

Artemis I’s first mission is to test the SLS launcher (Space Launch System), which is one of the most important nodes in the program for the return to the moon. This is the first major flight in the Artemis program, which is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA). The aim is also to test the Orion capsule, with its service module produced by the European agency, around the Moon. This will allow us to see if the ship meets the criteria for manned flight. Ultimately, the goals would be to create a space station around the Moon (Gateway) and to create more lunar landings with men and women on our natural satellite.

What exactly will happen?

The Artemis I mission is to send the Orion capsule to the Moon. The launch pad (Ed. note: the rocket) must first bring around the Earth an upper stage called the ICPS. It is this floor that will send the capsule to the Moon. The mission lasts 42 days, it is long, but it is a way to test the resistance of the capsule in a very aggressive space environment. Because in the future the missions around the Moon would have to be long. The Orion capsule will make a distant retrograde orbit, that is, the opposite of the Moon’s direction of rotation on itself. This is the most complicated type of circuit. The mission will therefore give you the opportunity to train to do so.

Why organize an unmanned mission?

This allows you to make a test. The SLS launcher has never flown, and Orion has never orbited the Moon. They will test the equipment in conditions much closer to use to prepare for the future mission.

Why is it always so hard to go to the moon?

Although we have 50 years of technological progress, the principle of a space mission remains extremely risky. We are always at the maximum of our civilization’s technological capacity. The slightest mistake can cause the mission to fail. There is very little margin for error. Technological developments allow us to return to the Moon, which we hope will last. During the Apollo missions, in the 60s and 70s, it was a geopolitical race. There we will do an exploration with a more ambitious scientific program to finally develop a trip to Mars. The goal would then be to use the Moon’s local resources.

SLS launcher of the Artemis I mission at Cape Canaveral

SLS launcher of the Artemis I mission at Cape Canaveral

What is the point of returning to the moon?

There are three main components. First, the technological component, which is to develop the exploration of local resources. So the scientific aspect: We don’t know the Moon that well, scientists hope to understand its history. Because the history of the Moon is also the history of the Earth, which allows us to understand the mechanism of the solar system, but also the mechanism of the Earth’s Moon.
Finally, the sociological aspect: it is about the ambition to push the younger generations towards scientific careers and space careers, this is what NASA calls the Artemis generation.

And the geopolitical aspect?

There is always a geopolitical component because space is an element of state sovereignty. If we take the case of USA, they have a theory of “Space Dominance”. That is, they always want to be the first in space, having the initiative for this return to the Moon is necessary for them. Nevertheless, the ambition is different from Apollo’s.

Why did we stop going there?

When there was the Apollo mission, we thought the race was over. Once the geopolitical issues had calmed down, at first we thought there was no point in going back there. Subsequently, space agencies realized that from a scientific point of view the moon was very interesting and easier to access than other places in the universe. From now on, the mission is to do what could have been done after Apollo. But at that time there was a lack of political will, budgets and also the technology to do it. This time it is possible and science will have an even greater presence.

What will happen in 2024?

Artemis II is a trip around the Moon with 5 people in it. They will then go around the Moon and return to Earth. It will be a mission of a few days. Then there will be Artemis III, it should take off at the moment in 2025, but that is a very optimistic date from NASA. Artemis III should allow the first lunar landing, it depends on the lunar lander produced by SpaceX. NASA wants the spacecraft that will make the moon landing to be able to serve several times. This will make it possible to carry out more sustainable tasks both economically and environmentally.

Thomas Pesquet on the moon is it possible?

Yes, three European astronauts could be sent during the Artemis missions. For now, it would rather be in Gateway, the lunar space station. But the European Space Agency is in discussion about allowing a European to go to the Moon. Of course, no one can guarantee that it will be Thomas Pesquet.

What’s happening this afternoon in the Cité de l’Espace?

We will broadcast live from NASA commented by our science broker and two guests: Antoine Alouani, systems engineer for the propulsion of Orion at Airbus and Sébastien Barde, deputy director of exploration and manned flights at CNES.

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