Most of the focus of the Artemis lunar exploration effort in recent years has centered on how NASA will return humans to the moon. That includes lengthy debates about lander designs and related technologies, not to mention budgets and schedules. NASA’s plan still calls for humans to set foot on the moon on the Artemis 3 mission in 2025, although that date has slipped to late in the year in a schedule released in March.
There’s been less attention, though, on what those astronauts will do once they arrive there. As that first landing inches even closer — even if it’s likely to slip beyond 2025 — NASA is laying the groundwork for that extraterrestrial fieldwork. The agency announced in mid-March the appointment of two lunar scientists, Noah Petro and Barbara Cohen, as project scientists for the Artemis 3 and 4 missions, respectively.
The announcement coincided with the annual Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference (LPSC) in the suburbs of Houston, where agency officials held a town hall to discuss how science will be incorporated into those missions. That involves both the creation of internal science teams at NASA as well as soliciting proposals from scientists outside the agency to join an external science team.
At the town hall, NASA walked a fine line between emphasizing the science potential of those missions and managing expectations for those initial crewed landings. “We’re on the path. It’s real now. We’re going to the moon,” said Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist in NASA’s exploration systems development mission directorate.
He cautioned, though, against expecting astronauts to hit the lunar regolith running. “Artemis 3 is not Apollo 18. Please do not judge it with the same metrics,” he said. “We will learn, and continue to increase capabilities and opportunities.”
Sarah Noble, Artemis lunar science lead in NASA’s science mission directorate, agreed. “Our goal on Artemis 3 and 4 is to learn how to do this,” she said when asked about sample collection. “We’re probably not going to get it right the first time.” She reassured scientists, though, that the samples those missions return will be “as good as anything we brought home on Apollo.”
There’s also work to get Artemis crews on the same page as scientists. Noble said most astronauts have had at least basic geology training, with lunar-specific training getting started along with defining training requirements for flight controllers. One lesson from past analog training exercises, she said, was that “everybody in the communications link has to understand the language of geology.”
“It’s all ramping up right now,” said Brett Denevi, a planetary scientist at the Applied Research Laboratory, of planning for those missions. Speaking on a panel at the National Academies’ Space Science Week event March 28, she said she was thinking about issues like how to communicate science needs to astronauts based on images and videos transmitted back to Earth, as well as the level of science training the astronauts will have.
She admitted initial skepticism about how science would be incorporated into Artemis. “Early on, it was not entirely clear how that was going to work,” she said but noted she was encouraged now by the progress she’s seen. “Now, we feel this Artemis science expedition rumbling to life.”
At LPSC, Bleacher noted some criticism about the science capabilities of at least the early missions, such as the limited amount of lunar samples that can fit in Orion for return to Earth or the inability to bring back frozen samples. He asked scientists for patience and cooperation. “We get that; we understand it,” he said. “Don’t burn the whole thing down because one piece isn’t doing what you want today.”
Artemis, he argued, offered scientists, especially those just starting their careers, the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something as significant as the Apollo program more than a half-century ago. “You only get to start these things once or twice in a generation,” he said. “We need to be on the same team to make this work.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.