Credit: NASA

NASA’s Artemis 1 mission, which was launched on Nov. 16, 2022 to the moon, was a great success. The launch and subsequent return of the Orion capsule on Dec. 11, 2022, from the moon was a great achievement on our path to return humans to the moon in the near future.

As we did in the Apollo program, we are taking an “evolutionary approach” with incremental steps to prove the new hardware and retire the risk on our path toward permanent presence on the moon and maintaining U.S. leadership in space exploration. Also, it has been over 50 years since we went to the moon, so a new generation is learning to get us back to the moon to stay. NASA recently released the Artemis Architecture Definition (ADD) . It makes the point numerous times about the evolutionary approach to exploration. Artemis 1 was uncrewed and successfully demonstrated our new systems to reach lunar orbit and return. Artemis 2 will include the crew and, similar to Apollo 8, place astronauts in lunar orbit before returning to Earth.

Artemis 3 is planned to be the mission to return humans to the surface of the moon. The one change I would recommend to NASA’s plans in keeping with the “evolutionary approach” is for Artemis 3 to return to Tranquility Base, near the moon’s equator, versus the plan to go to the South Pole. I agree with eventually going to the South Pole for all the reasons spelled out in NASA’s White Paper on “Why Artemis Will Focus on the Lunar South Polar Region,” which is consistent with the papers developed by Dr. Paul Spudis and Dr. Ben Bussey over 15 years ago. The South Pole is where we need to go for long term, sustained lunar exploration, lunar resources, and science investigation. However, we should plan for that location after Artemis 3. My rationale for making this recommendation is based on lower risk, traffic/hazard management at the South Pole, and historical reasons.

Lower Risk – The reason Apollo did not land at the lunar poles and went close to lunar equator instead was due to risk and ensuring our astronauts returned safely. Artemis 3 will be the first-time humans’ step back on the moon in over 50 years. There will be many firsts, including new space suits, in-space docking of Orion and Starship, not to mention the first time Starship will touchdown on the moon with humans. We should take the incremental risk step of making the next landing near a place we have been before to ensure our new lander works in the lowest risk environment before taking on more challenging landings at the pole.

NASA deemed the equator was the best place to land Apollo for safety and risk concerns because: 1. Orbital mechanics and launch windows are simpler to and from the moon; 2. It is smoother than the poles; 3. The approach and landing does not have to worry about large craters, cliffs or boulders, unlike the pole; 4. The equator landing site affords excellent direct line of site communications with Earth while the communications at the pole can be challenging; and 5. There is adequate lighting during the day at the equator with the sun high in the sky versus very low in the sky at the pole casting very long shadows and areas that cannot be easily seen. Shadowing complicates visibility, navigation, hazard recognition and the use of solar arrays for power.

Tranquility Base, the near-equatorial site where the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon in July 1969, is a historically significant and less technically risky landing site for NASA’s Artemis 3 mission. Credit: NASA

We should take to heart two recent lunar landing attempts that ended in failure. The first was the Israeli “Beresheet” lander launched on Feb. 22, 2019, and the second was Japan’s ispace Hakuto-R lander which made an unsuccessful landing on April 26, 2023. The Hakuto-R’s original relatively flat landing site was changed to a deep crater area and caused an altitude estimation software error as it went over the crater rim, per the recent investigation released by Ispace. Their analysis stated that the simulations and training were inadequate to account for the rugged terrain versus the original flat terrain. We need to provide our astronauts with a low-risk approach and landing to a known, flat area to validate all the new hardware, software, and their training.

South Pole Traffic/Hazard Management – The prime real-estate at the South Pole for a lunar base is on the “Connecting Ridge” between Shackleton Crater and the deGerlache Crater. The rest of the South Pole poses technical challenges with the dramatic landscapes. This location is not a large area, and we need to be deliberate about which hardware is really needed to be at this prime location and not clutter it with man-made hazards and threats to surface operations for future missions, as pointed out in the NASA Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy document, “Lunar Landing and Operations Policy Analysis” published Sept. 30, 2022.

History – Our return to the moon will be historic regardless, but I believe could be even more inspirational by returning astronauts to where we landed for the first time, Tranquility Base. It would be an inspirational homage from the Artemis generation to the Apollo generation. Many of us watched the original Apollo 11 black and white grainy images on our TV in 1969 in awe. Can you imagine now seeing the Apollo 11 site in modern high-definition color? It would also provide great insights into what happens to our hardware we left behind over 50 years of exposure to the sun and deep space. Finally, by landing near the Apollo 11 site, we could help secure the site as an important historical site per the One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act, passed by Congress in 2020.

There is certainly a technical risk and safety case to be made for going to Tranquility Base on our first time back to the moon in 50 years, but there is also the very important historical impetus to return to where Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and NASA inspired the world on July 20, 1969.

Walt Faulconer is President of the Faulconer Consulting Group having previously been the Business Area Executive for Civilian Space at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and Director of Strategic Planning and Business Development at Lockheed Martin.

This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.