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Comments last week suggested the Artemis 3 lunar landing might not take place near the lunar south pole, but NASA has since reiterated it still plans to go to the south pole. (credit: NASA)

Where will Artemis 3 land? And when?

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NASA’s Artemis program faces many challenges to overcome to achieve its goal of landing humans on the Moon in 2024. There are the myriad technical problems that have already occurred, and will likely continue to crop up in the coming years as NASA completes development of the Space Launch System, Orion, one or more human lunar landers, and the lunar Gateway. Funding remains a challenge, as evidenced by a House bill that provides NASA with less than a fifth the funding it sought for the Human Landing System (HLS) program (see “Irregular disorder and the NASA budget”, The Space Review, July 27, 2020). And, there’s the possibility that a change of administrations next year will lead to a slowdown, or even abandonment, of the entire program.

“If, for example, we made a determination that the south pole might be out of reach for Artemis 3—which I’m not saying it is or isn’t—the question is, if you’re going to go to the equatorial region again, how are you going to learn the most?” Bridenstine asked.

But, suppose those technical, fiscal, and policy obstacles can be overcome, and in late 2024 a lander with two NASA astronauts on board does set down on the lunar surface on the Artemis 3 mission. Where, exactly, does that spacecraft land? The goal, laid out a year and a half ago by Vice President Mike Pence, and repeated countless times by NASA leadership since, is to land at the south pole of the Moon to take advantage of the water ice thought to exist there.

“To reach the Moon in the next five years we must select our destinations now,” Pence said in the March 2019 speech at a National Space Council meeting. “NASA already knows that the lunar south pole holds great scientific, economic, and strategic value, but now it’s time to commit to go there.”

NASA stuck to that destination until a week ago, when NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested for the first time publicly that Artemis 3 might not land on the Moon. Answering a question posed after he spoke at an online meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) about going back to the Apollo landing sites, Bridenstine suggested they were an option under consideration for Artemis 3.

“For the first mission, Artemis 3, our objective is to get to the south pole. Of course, the south pole is where there is the most interest right now, because that’s where the water ice is, and we need to characterize it and we need to understand how to extract it and utilize it,” he said. “But I would imagine that there is going to be great interest in some of those [Apollo] sites and it would not surprise me…”

He paused and restarted his train of thought. “If, for example, we made a determination that the south pole might be out of reach for Artemis 3—which I’m not saying it is or isn’t—the question is, if you’re going to go to the equatorial region again, how are you going to learn the most?”

“You could argue that you learn the most by going to the places where we put gear in the past,” he continued. “There could be scientific discoveries there. Of course, just the inspiration of going back to an original Apollo site would be pretty amazing as well.” He added that doing so could help establish “norms of behavior” to protect those landing sites, part of a broader initiative to use the Artemis program to promote what NASA and the US government sees as proper behavior in space for those who want to cooperate on lunar exploration with the agency (see “What’s in a name when it comes to an ‘accord’?”, The Space Review, July 13, 2020)

“Those decisions haven’t been made at this time,” he concluded of the Artemis 3 landing site debate. But even the hypothetical consideration of an alternative landing created a buzz at the LEAG meeting among lunar scientists and other participants. In later sessions of the meeting, they asked other NASA representatives about planning for other landing sites than the south pole of the Moon.

A shift in landing sites, for example, would affect the science. A few weeks earlier, NASA announced it has assembled a science definition team for the Artemis 3 mission, tasked with identifying science goals for the mission. That science would be different at the south pole of the Moon than at, say, an Apollo landing site closer to the Moon’s equator.

As of the meeting, the science definition team was not considering alternative sites. “For the time being, we have been directed to do this activity looking at a polar landing site,” said Renee Weber, chair of the science definition team at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Jake Bleacher, chief exploration scientist in NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division, noted in another session of the meeting that the agency was just starting the process of identifying landing sites. He added, though, that while NASA envisions ultimately setting up an “Artemis Base Camp” at one location, presumably at the south pole, there was not requirement that Artemis 4, the second crewed landing, go to the same location as Artemis 3. He added there was also “no clarity” about how long after Artemis 3 the Artemis 4 landing would take place.

“We’re really looking at a bunch of different options for making a decision. I don’t want to have to give a spoiler alert,” Lueders said.

Two days later, Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, spoke at a Washington Space Business Roundtable webinar. After her prepared remarks giving an overview of various human spaceflight programs, one attendee asked her about potential alternative Artemis 3 landing sites.

“We’re really looking at a bunch of different options for making a decision. I don’t want to have to give a spoiler alert,” she responded. “We’re looking at some ways to get more communities to participate in that decision.”

“Where the initial missions are is of big interest, so we’re actually trying to find a way to get almost a national participation in this,” she added. “More to come.”

As this article was being prepared for publication Monday, NASA announced it would host a media teleconference late in the day to “discuss the agency’s latest Artemis program exploration plans.” Would this be, some speculated online, an announcement that NASA was reconsidering a landing site for the Artemis 3 mission, the “spoiler” that Lueders was trying to avoid giving away last week?

Not exactly. NASA instead used the briefing to promote a report the agency issued just before that briefing started outlining its initial phase of the Artemis program, leading up to the 2024 landing. That report was largely a repackaging of what NASA had previously said about the program, with a few new details, such as a table outlining the nearly $28 billion it projects to spend in fiscal years 2021 through 2025 on programs directly linked to the Artemis 3 landing.

And as to where that landing would take place? “The exact landing site for Artemis III astronauts depends on several factors, including the specific science objectives and the launch date,” the report stated, such as lighting conditions, line-of-sight access to the Earth for communications, surface conditions, “and close proximity to permanently shadowed regions, some of which are believed to contain resources such as water ice.” That last condition would suggest a polar site, as only the areas around the north and south poles have such permanently shadowed regions.

Asked about landing sites in the call, Bridenstine said NASA remained committed to going to the south pole of the Moon. “I’ve seen a good bit of chatter about this in social media,” he said. “To be clear, we’re going to the south pole. There is no talk or trades or anything else about anything other than going to the south pole at NASA.”

Bridenstine stressed comments last week at the LEAG meeting about going any place other than the south pole of the Moon were hypothetical. (However, he also said at that meeting that a decision about a landing site hadn’t been made, which fueled speculation among both meeting attendees and the outside community.) “Right now, we have no plans for Artemis 3 for anything other than the south pole,” he reiterated.

The release of the plan, and the briefing, came as NASA sought to build support for funding to enable an Artemis 3 landing on the Moon in 2024, regardless of location. A Senate appropriations committee is set to hold a hearing Wednesday on NASA’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal, barely a week before that fiscal year starts October 1.

“If we go beyond March and we still don’t have the Human Landing System funded, it becomes increasingly more difficult” to get back to the Moon by 2024, Bridenstine said.

Bridenstine said in the call that he expects Congress to pass a continuing resolution (CR), or stopgap funding bill, to keep NASA funded at 2020 levels into December. In a best-case scenario, the House and Senate reach a compromise after the election on a full-year 2021 spending bill that manages to provide full funding for the HLS program.

“If we have that done before Christmas, we’re still on track for a 2024 Moon landing,” Bridenstine said. That might be a problem this year, particularly if the presidential election is not settled immediately after Election Day (given the projected high number of mail-in ballots because of the pandemic) or if the Senate is consumed by a confirmation debate for a new Supreme Court justice to succeed the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

If that CR is extended beyond March 2021, though, there could be problems with maintaining the 2024 schedule. “If we go to March without the $3.2 billion, it becomes more difficult,” he said. “I would argue we’re still within the realm of possibility because we do have our work underway right now.”

“If we go beyond March and we still don’t have the Human Landing System funded, it becomes increasingly more difficult,” he continued. If that funding doesn’t materialize, he later said, “our goal will be to get to the Moon at the earliest possible opportunity” after 2024.

It would, at least, give them more time to figure out exactly where that mission will land, once it finally gets to the Moon.

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