NASA did not go to the moon in the 1960s for science. To be certain, the Apollo missions made significant scientific advances, including returning hundreds of kilograms of rocks that are still studied today. However, science was, at best, a secondary objective for a program intended to demonstrate American superiority over the Soviet Union in the Space Race.
Science, though, is supposed to be more of a primary focus for the Artemis campaign of lunar missions. In speeches and at scientific meetings, scientists and agency officials have discussed what they argue is a much closer collaboration on planning for Artemis missions. That includes studies of potential landing sites near the south pole of the moon that are both safe for crewed landings and of scientific interest, and the types of investigations that astronauts could perform on those missions.
“My biggest partner in all of this, I really believe, is science,” said Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, at the AIAA ASCEND conference in Las Vegas Oct. 24. “All of our systems have science built into it.” That included, he said, allocating 450 kilograms of payload to science investigations on the Artemis 3 lander.
But there are limits to that accommodation of science. “We just had a formal dissent at our board from science to one of the implementation decisions we made on Artemis,” he said. That sounded ominous, but he played that up as a sign of how seriously the agency was taking science. “We should be going for as much science as we can, but we’re trying to balance how much development we can do.”
He didn’t elaborate in his speech on what issue caused that formal dissent. A NASA spokesperson later said the issue dealt with the design of a future rover and how it would integrate with spacesuits worn by astronauts, one that would reduce the time available for science on each EVA by 2.5 hours. “The Science Mission Directorate dissented to accepting the reduction in science time and the team is evaluating ways to buy back EVA time,” the agency stated.
The challenges of integrating science into human lunar exploration go both ways. “Astronauts, and people who know how they work, need to be part of science discussions in a way they’ve never been,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, in a speech at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Symposium Oct. 26.
“We need to take their constraints under consideration,” he continued. “I don’t understand how astronauts do their work in a deep fashion, and 95% of everybody who works on my floor at Headquarters doesn’t, either. That needs to change.”
In his speech, he proposed a taxonomy of how science is done at NASA. “Modality 0” is robotic exploration, something the agency “is really comfortable with,” he said. “Modality 1” is science done on human missions today and in the past. “I call it ‘science rides along with human exploration.’”
He wants to push NASA to do two different modalities of science. In Modality 2, science and human exploration are jointly implemented, with science objectives from the beginning, something closer to what NASA is trying to do with Artemis 3. Modality 3 would more tightly integrate human and robotic exploration based on high-priority science objectives. “The science requirements go first, and it’s clear what the robots do and what the humans do because, at the end, both are needed to achieve these goals.”
He said the most recent planetary science decadal survey took steps in that direction with its examination of the science enabled by human lunar missions. An example is a mission that report endorsed for a robotic rover that would traverse the south polar regions of the moon and collect samples, delivering them to an Artemis landing site where astronauts would retrieve them and take them back to Earth.
That won’t be easy, he acknowledged. But it may provide a stronger foundation for the future of both science and human spaceflight at NASA.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the November 2022 issue.