Artemis astronauts
NASA is emphasizing the science that astronauts will be able to do on the first Artemis lunar lander missions, but there are questions about how many samples they will be able to return. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA released a report April 2 outlining its long-term approach to lunar exploration that involves establishing a “base camp” at the south pole of the moon, but with few details about cost and schedule.

NASA prepared the report, “NASA’s Plan for Sustained Lunar Exploration and Development,” for the National Space Council at the request of Vice President Mike Pence at the council’s most recent meeting in August 2019. At that meeting, Pence requested a report “for sustainable lunar surface exploration and the development of crewed missions to Mars” delivered within 60 days.

The 13-page report, after discussing efforts leading up to a human return to the moon by 2024 on the Artemis 3 mission, describes the agency’s plans for subsequent missions. “After Artemis III, the overall plan is to conduct operations on and around the Moon that help prepare us for the mission durations and activities that we will experience during the first human mission to Mars, while also emplacing and building the infrastructure, systems, and robotic missions that can enable a sustained lunar surface presence,” the report states.

That will be achieved by creating what NASA calls the “Artemis Base Camp” at the south pole of the moon. “Artemis Base Camp will be our first sustainable foothold on the lunar frontier,” the report states, eventually supporting missions lasting one to two months.

The report identified three key capabilities needed for that base camp. The first is a lunar terrain vehicle, an unpressurized rover analogous to the lunar rover used on the later Apollo missions. That would be followed by a larger pressurized rover called a “habitable mobility platform” used for trips lasting up to 45 days, and a “foundation surface habitat” capable of hosting four people.

NASA has started initial planning for the lunar terrain vehicle, recently issuing a request for information. “We received quite a bit of response to that,” Steve Clarke, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, during a March 31 meeting of the National Academies’ Committee for Astrobiology and Planetary Science. That included what he called “nontraditional” companies that develop mobility systems on Earth who could partner with aerospace companies to create lunar versions of those vehicles.

The report did not go into detail about these capabilities, including when they would be built or how much they would cost. NASA stated in the report that those systems, combined with other infrastructure such as power and communications, “comprise a sustained capability on the Moon that can be revisited and built upon over the coming decades.”

Another aspect of NASA’s long-term lunar exploration plan involves building out the lunar Gateway. The agency envisions adding a “large-volume deep space habitation” module to the Gateway, which in an illustration included in the report appears to be an expandable module far larger than other Gateway modules.

The Gateway and base camp would be tied together in one mission scenario intended to simulate a Mars expedition. In that mission, a four-person crew would fly to the Gateway and remain there for several months, simulating the trip to Mars. Two astronauts would then go to the lunar surface with the other two remaining on the Gateway. After returning from the moon, the crew would remain on the Gateway for several more months to simulate the trip back to Earth.

While NASA emphasized in the report that this is a sustainable architecture, it says little about schedules or costs, saying only that budget is just one of several factors associated with the effort. “For planning purposes, NASA is developing a sequence that accounts for these variables and results in an annual cadence of demonstrable progress and a gradual increase in mission duration and complexity,” it states.

The report also provides few updates about the plans leading up to that human return on the Artemis 3 mission. Doug Loverro, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at a March 13 committee meeting that the agency was taking the Gateway out of the “critical path” for the 2024 landing, but emphasized its importance for later missions.

The report, though, offered no indication that Gateway was no longer part of that 2024 landing. “Orion will deliver the first crew to Gateway when the human landing system (HLS) capability can enable lunar expeditions to be staged from the stable Gateway orbit,” the report states.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...