NASA's Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon is to include eight rocket launches to put a mini space station in lunar orbit by 2024. That's when it hopes to land its first female astronaut on lunar soil.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced late Wednesday that an Orion capsule named Artemis 3 would put astronauts back on the moon in 2024, including a woman crew member.
Artemis, named after a Greek goddess, is to be the follow-on to Apollo — the six-flight moonshot program that put 12 men on the Earth's satellite five decades ago. The last astronaut to walk on the moon's surface was Eugene Cernan in 1972.
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Bridenstine's announcement included the naming of private firm Maxar Technologies to build the "power and propulsion element" for the lunar orbiting outpost that would be called "Gateway." It is to be powered by huge solar energy panels.
Still undecided, he said, was who would build the lander to transport crews from the outpost to the moon's surface and back to Gateway.
"We're not owning the hardware; we're buying the service, said Bridenstine, adding that time until 2024 was relatively short and that the ultimate goal was to reach Mars.
Contenders for the lander include Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Blue Origin, an offshoot of Amazon chief Jeff Bezos.
NASA executive resigns
Meanwhile, the NASA executive hired just six weeks ago to oversee the lunar program, Mark Sirangelo, resigned on Thursday. His plans to set up a separate directorate for the lunar campaign within NASA were rejected by the US Congress, prompting him to quit.
"So, we will move forward under our current organizational structure...," Bridenstine said in a statement.
Flights for assemble orbiting platform
To assemble Gateway, five building block launches using the Boeing-led Space Launch System (SLS) rocket — currently under development — were planned, said the NASA chief.
Artemis 1 would be an uncrewed mission around the moon in 2020. Artemis 2 would be crewed and orbit the moon in 2022. Artemis 3 would bring astronauts to the orbiting mini-station in 2024 prior to a lunar surface and return to Gateway.
Alarm over funding source
Last week, educators reacted with alarm over news that President Donald Trump's White House, including Vice President Mike Pence, wanted to source extra funds for space exploration from the so-called Pell Grant, which provides grants for college students.
ng,ipj/rt (AFP, dpa, AP, Reuters)