NASA hopes its next moonshot will be a beacon of hope in troubled times, just as the first one was.
The space agency pulled off its famed Apollo moon landings during a time of incredible division and turmoil in the United States. Throughout the 1960s, the nation was wracked and riven by the Vietnam War, civil rights violations and protests, and high Cold War tensions, among other issues.
Apollo offered inspiration to Americans and people around the world back then, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine noted. And the space agency has a chance to do something similar today with its Artemis program of lunar exploration, he said.
"It's important that this agency do this now, because our country — and, in fact, the whole world — has been shaken by this coronavirus pandemic," Bridenstine said Thursday (April 30) during a teleconference with reporters.
"We need to give people hope, we need to give them something that they can look up to, dream about — something that will inspire not just the nation but the entire world," he added. "And I think that's what NASA does."
Artemis is working to land astronauts — including the first-ever female moonwalker — near the lunar south pole in 2024. That will be a very big deal indeed; nobody has set foot on the moon since the Apollo 17 crew departed in December 1972.
Artemis also aims to establish a long-term human presence on and around the moon by 2028. Bridenstine and other officials believe that the skills and techniques NASA learns to make this happen will help the space agency pull off the next giant leap, a crewed mission to Mars, in the 2030s.
Thursday's teleconference delivered some significant Artemis news: NASA has awarded contracts to three industry teams to develop crewed moon landers for the program. SpaceX, Dynetics and a consortium led by Blue Origin will share $967 million to develop their concepts over the next 10 months.
NASA will assess the designs over this period, then select one or more to be matured. Eventually, the agency will procure crewed landing services from the vehicles that make it all the way through the development phase.
The landing system is one of several big architectural pieces that need to fall into place quickly to make the 2024 landing happen. The others are the huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew capsule, which together will get astronauts off Earth and on their way to the moon.
Orion has one test flight under its belt, an uncrewed mission to Earth orbit that launched in December 2014 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. SLS has not yet left the ground; its first flight, which will send an uncrewed Orion around the moon, is expected to launch in mid-2021.
NASA also plans to assemble a small space station called the Gateway in lunar orbit. Gateway is a significant part of the overall Artemis plan; the outpost will serve as a staging point for sorties, both crewed and uncrewed, to the lunar surface. But the 2024 landing probably will not involve Gateway, Bridenstine said on Thursday.
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Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.