Astronauts are on track to live and work on the moon before the end of the decade, a NASA official said.
Howard Hu, the head of the U.S. agency’s Orion lunar spacecraft program, said humans could be “expensive” on the moon before 2030, with habitats to live in and rovers to support their work.
“Certainly, in this decade, we’re going to make people live for a long time, depending on how long we’re going to be on the surface. They will have habitats, they will have robbers on the ground,” he told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg program on Sunday. “We’re going to send people to the surface, and they’re going to live and do science on that surface,” he added.
Hu was put in charge of NASA’s deep space exploration spacecraft in February, and on Sunday he spoke as the 98-meter Artemis rocket flew toward the moon on its first uncrewed mission.
The giant rocket, topped by the Orion spacecraft, launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on Wednesday after a series of delays due to technical glitches and hurricanes.
The spacecraft has three fully-suited mannequins on board, which will record the stresses and strains of the Artemis 1 mission. The rocket is now about 83,000 miles (134,000 km) from the moon.
“It is the first step we are taking towards long-term deep space exploration, not just for the United States but for the entire world. I think this is a historic day for NASA, but it’s also a historic day for all the people who love human spaceflight and deep space exploration,” Hu said.
“We are going back to the moon. We are working on a sustainable program and this is the vehicle that will carry the people who will land us back on the moon,” he added.
The spacecraft will fly within 60 miles of the moon and fly another 40,000 miles before swinging back around and aiming for a landing in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11. The spacecraft will travel 1.3 million miles during the 25-day mission, the farthest a human-built spacecraft has ever flown.
Upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, the spacecraft will travel about 25,000 mph, raising the temperature of the heat shield to about 2,800C (5,000F). It is expected to crash off the coast of San Diego.
A successful mission will pave the way for follow-up flights of Artemis 2 and 3, both of which would send humans around the moon and back. The Artemis 3 mission, which may not launch until 2026, is expected to return humans to the moon’s surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in December 1972. NASA plans that mission would land the first woman on the moon, with a subsequent visit landing the first person of color on the lunar surface.
Named after Apollo’s twin sister, the Artemis program also plans to build the Lunar Gateway, a space station where astronauts will live and work while orbiting the moon. “Moving forward is really to Mars,” Hu told the BBC. “That’s a bigger stepping stone, a two-year journey, so learning beyond our orbit becomes very important.”