The US space agency’s lunar exploration programme - entitled Artemis, after the Goddess of the Moon, the twin sister of Greek god Apollo - plans to land a man and woman on the South pole region of the Moon in 2024; it will be the first crewed landing on the lunar surface since Apollo 17 in 1972. The crew, announced on 10th December 2020, comprises of 9 males and 9 females: the first ever crew with an equal gender split since operations at NASA began.
The astronauts on the Artemis team come from a diverse range of backgrounds, expertise, and experience. The 18 astronauts include geologists, pilots, engineers, medical doctors, biologists and an ex-teacher. Impressively, nine of the selected astronauts have already racked up more than 1,400 days in space between them, and eight are members of the most recent astronaut class - selected in 2017.
Previously, space exploration has a long history of gender imbalance and racial discrimination. NASA actively hired female mathematicians titled ‘computers’ to complete complex calculations for their earliest flights yet, like Katherine Johnson, they were marginalised and kept as ‘hidden figures’.
Out of the 562 people who have flown in space to date, only 11% of them have been women and although operating since 1958, it wasn’t until 1978 when selecting those to ‘man’ the space shuttle missions, that NASA selected its first female astronauts – 6 out of a class of 35.
Five years later, one member of this class, Sally Ride, eventually became the first American woman to fly to space following in the footsteps of USSR cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova (1963) and Svetlana Savitskaya (1982).
Focusing on the future, the Artemis plan culminates with the deployment of a Lunar Surface Asset, in other words, a base, by 2028, thus establishing a sustainable human lunar presence by the end of the decade. However, the timeline for these missions will depend on how much support the incoming Biden administration is prepared to invest in NASA's exploration activities.
In terms of settling on the moon, radiation from the Sun causes the biggest difficulties; inflatable modules made from multiple layers of fabric will be used in the early stages of exploration, but longer-term, lunar settlers might move underground: setting up home inside natural tunnels in the rock called lava tubes offering natural shelter from the radiation. NASA’s next-generation ship, Orion, also uses materials within its structure to shield the occupants from radiation. Eventually, tourists could expect to land on the lunar surface and stay in these habitats; the UBS estimates that space tourism will be a £2.3bn market by 2030.
NASA cited Chinese lunar ambitions while justifying the return date of 2024, this is in order to coordinate lunar exploration to navigate murky legal waters over who owns the lunar resources.
Perhaps more prominent than ever, exploration of new territory comes with the risk of geopolitical tension as different stakeholders lay claim to the land. “If a single nation decides to go it alone on creating industry in space, then eventually that single nation would have a tremendous political, economic and military advantage.” says Phil Metzger, senior research physicist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
Cooperating and dividing the resources internationally so that all of humanity benefits would be the ethical solution, however the powerful economies such as the USA, China and Russia would likely argue for more than their fair share.
“We're not going back to the Moon to leave flags and footprints and then not go back for another 50 years,” NASA’s administrator Jim Bridenstine said earlier this year. “We're going to go sustainably - to stay - with landers and robots and rovers and humans."