The Artemis I mission marks the beginning of a new era of human exploration for NASA. While the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will not be manned, Artemis II will take astronauts around the moon. The third Artemis flight will return humans to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. NASA associate director Thomas Zurbuchen has been key to the development of the program. new scientist reporter Leah Crane picked it up from Cape Canaveral, Florida, shortly before Artemis I’s first launch attempt on Aug. 29, which had to be postponed due to technical issues. The new launch date is scheduled for September 3.
How do you feel? Thrilled? Nervous?
When you do something like this where everything has to work, there is of course excitement, elation and pride for the team – but there are also concerns, because you have committed everything in this one moment. There is even fear that something could go wrong because a lot has to go right.
Aside from the launch itself, is there anything we’re going to learn that you’re particularly excited about?
There are a number of scientific studies going on there, much of it related to radiation, both with CubeSats [miniature satellites] and also radiation experiments on Orion. I am very excited about learning about the deep space environment in the context of people. We haven’t really thought about that with that intensity for 50 years.
It’s been a long road so far, with numerous delays and budget overruns. Was it all worth it?
It has to be like this. And it will be. After 20 years in low Earth orbit, we need to move on. To achieve that, I wish it were easier, but the journey begins with this.
How Far Ahead Has NASA Planned After This First SLS Launch?
We really must be suspicious of plans. We really need to fulfill the first three Artemis missions. We’ve got to get back to the moon’s surface, and there’s no shortcut. We need to work on all three missions now.
If you go to Artemis IV through VII, of course we’re working on that, but on a timescale of 10 years, let’s say 15 years, there are a lot of variables that will adjust. The question is, how many big launchers will we have? There’s one big launcher on the pad – will there be others? How much in the private sector? How many international?
The next question is, what will we discover regarding the science of the moon during these early missions? What we discover is the driving force behind the plan for the future. The plans after the upcoming Artemis missions really need to be adaptable, they should be.
After this first unmanned SLS launch, how much harder is it to get people in the Orion crew pod onto the rocket?
It’s a lot harder. There are many problems. First of all, this is the maiden voyage and I actually believe that the risk to Orion is greater than the risk to the missile. Bringing Orion back will be as much of a challenge as getting off Earth.
Why is that?
Honestly, I’ve spent over 11 hours of system reviews, so I’ve looked at all the risks out there. The heat shield is the main thing people have talked about, but the whole integration of the European service module system with the other parts, the propulsion piece, the track injection, how is it all going to work – it’s just not easy. The whole [communications] piece with this complex orbit, the orbital debris piece, the risks just add up. The mission isn’t over until Orion is safely down here.
Do we use a lot of knowledge we gained from the Apollo program?
Yes, we should always learn everything we can learn from the previous generation, but I think this is also brand new – we’re going back to a different moon than we left. The questions we have are very different, and the research tools – small satellites were not a thing, AI was not a thing, huge amounts of data that we can analyze were nothing. I think exciting science will undoubtedly come out of it.
The purpose of the Artemis missions is very different from the Apollo program – we’re not just going to plant a flag. How did that affect the mission plan?
When you first go back to the surface of the moon with humans, the main goal is for humans to survive, whether you have a scientific purpose or not. As we move forward, when we move beyond the Artemis III mission, the science becomes much more dominant. We’re already talking about what kind of hand tools we give the astronauts, how much monster mass can we bring back? Because we think the monsters are just as important as anything that happens on the surface of the moon. The role of science is increasing.
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