Space is a most inhospitable place but we can take it.
NASA’s Artemis program will mark a significant milestone in US space flight history when it lifts off in late 2024. Not only will it be the first time that American astronauts have travelled further than LEO since the 1970s, and not only will it be the first opportunity for a female astronaut to step foot on the moon. The Artemis mission will perform the crucial groundwork needed for humanity to further explore and potentially colonize our nearest celestial neighbor as well as eventually serve as a jumping-off point in our quest to reach Mars. Given how inhospitable space is to human physiology and psychology, however, NASA and its partners will face a significant challenge in keeping their lunar colonists alive and well.
Back in the Apollo mission era, the notion of constructing even a semi-permanent presence on the surface of the moon was laughable — largely because the numerous lunar regolith samples collected and returned to Earth during that period were “found to be dry as a bone,” Rob Mueller, Senior Technologist in Advanced Projects Development at NASA said during a SXSW 2021 panel. “That was the common wisdom, there is no water on the moon, and so for many years that was the assumption held in the [aerospace] community.”
It wasn’t until the late ‘90s that a neutron spectrometer aboard NASA’s Lunar Prospector mission found telltale evidence of hydrogen atoms located at the moon’s poles, suggesting the potential presence of water ice. And it wasn’t until last October that the SOPHIA mission detected water on the sunlit surface of the moon, rather than only squirrelled away in deep, dark lunar craters.
“We had indications that H2O – the familiar water we know – might be present on the sunlit side of the Moon,” Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, said at the time. “Now we know it is there. This discovery challenges our understanding of the lunar surface and raises intriguing questions about resources relevant for deep space exploration.”
Based on this new evidence, Mueller estimates that there should be enough water ice available to “launch a vehicle like the space shuttle every day for 2,000 years. So there’s a lot of water on the moon. The trick is, is we have to find it, access it, and mine it, and then economically use it.”