Why are we going to the moon again? NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren explains

NASA has a plan: It’s going to send a team of astronauts back to the moon for the first time in more than five decades, including the first woman to stand on the lunar surface. Recently scientists have learned a whole lot more about our planet’s largest satellite, but there’s still a lot we have yet to understand about the moon and its place in the solar system. That’s why going back to the moon under the Artemis mission is so important.

But there are benefits beyond the scientific to visiting the moon — it can also help teach us how to survive away from our home planet and to explore further than ever before. We spoke to astronaut Kjell Lindgren, a member of NASA’s Artemis Team from which the next humans to walk on the moon will be selected, about why we need to go back there.

First the moon, then Mars

NASA is taking a two-pronged approach to a moon mission. There is certainly a great deal of scientific research to be done there, but NASA’s aims aren’t only scientific. The agency also wants to establish a long-term moon base and to get practice at having astronauts live on another celestial body for extended periods of time. So Artemis is also about making technological advancements, or, in NASA parlance, in operational advancements.

“We’re going to the moon because there’s still so much to learn there, about the formation of the Earth and the moon, its place in the solar system, and about the universe in general. So I think the scientific knowledge we’re going to learn is incredibly important,” Lindgren told Digital Trends. “But there are operational discoveries and practice that we need to learn as well. We all agree that our ultimate goal is to someday get to Mars. And the moon provides a terrific platform where we can practice a lot of the skills and procedures that we’re going to need for Mars.”

NASA

Some of the practical issues faced on the moon which are comparable to missions to Mars including dealing with radiation and finding ways to construct habitats or to build wearable radiation shielding. Astronauts who stay within low-Earth orbit are largely protected from radiation from the Earth’s magnetosphere. But venturing beyond that to the moon means astronauts will be subjected to levels of radiation that are 200 times higher than those on Earth.

“The journey to the moon will give us an opportunity to understand how the human body is affected by that radiation, and to learn more about that environment,” Lindgren explained.

Practice on the ISS

We already have a lot of information about what it’s like for astronauts to live in orbit thanks to decades of data from the International Space Station (ISS). But there are some key differences between living there and going to the moon. Lindgren is familiar with these differences, as he stayed on the ISS for six months in 2015.

“The International Space Station is unique in that it is a scientific platform. We’re not really trained to fly the space station. We’re trained to use that incredible platform to conduct science and research.” Lindgren explained. So astronauts’ functions reflect that. “That’s our job on the space station, to serve as the eyes and ears and hands of the researchers on the ground to conduct scientific experiments.”

NASA

Sometimes the astronauts on the ISS need to do operational tasks too, like maintaining or fixing parts of the station or adding new equipment. But the primary purpose of staying on the space station is scientific advancements.

The Artemis missions to the moon will be different. The astronauts will need to learn to fly a spacecraft, to descend from orbit and land on the moon, to lift off from the surface, and return to Earth. And no one has done that for over 50 years.

Training for the moon

One of the challenges of a moon mission in this decade is that it’s been so long since anyone performed a crewed lunar mission that much of the institutional knowledge about how to achieve it has been lost as people retired from service. So the new generation of astronauts as well as engineers, mission controllers, and support staff are having to create new procedures and training structures.

“There’s nobody in our generation who has prepared for a lunar mission,” Lindgren said. “We know what the Apollo astronauts did, and so we have a bit of a framework of what’s going to be expected of us.”

The Artemis II mission will send a crew around the moon, and the Artemis III mission will send a crew to the moon’s surface, so these teams will need lunar geology training. “For Artemis II, it’ll be visual observation as they’re going around the moon — the ability to look down and make scientific observations,” he said. “And of course the Artemis III team will be very excited to do field geology. That’s going out and looking at the lunar landscape, identifying different rock formations, different types of lunar rock, and make observations and collections for the team back at [NASA’s] Johnson Space Center.”

As well as scientific training, astronauts need to keep themselves in good physical condition and to spend time in NASA’s supersonic jet training planes like the T-38 Talon. “That gives us an opportunity to practice eye-hand coordination and inter-crew communication,” in difficult physical conditions, Lindgren explained. It’s also an opportunity to practice procedures and simulated emergencies, to check the entire team is working smoothly together should anything go wrong.

A difference in gravity

On top of the scientific and communications training, there’s the technical training astronauts need to perform their functions in space: operating robotic arms, going on spacewalks, using tools, and moving around in low gravity conditions. All of this requires a different approach in the 1/6th gravity of the moon than it does in the zero-gravity of the ISS.

“When we practice spacewalk we do that in the neutral buoyancy laboratory [NASA’s giant swimming pool where astronauts train in simulated zero gravity on a replica of the ISS] and we work on the outside of the space station,” Lindgren said. “Now we’re going to need to learn how to use the neutral buoyancy laboratory as a lunar practice area. So that means walking along the bottom and using tools and figuring out how to use those tools effectively.”

The gravity on the moon means that, unlike in the ISS, tools will fall to the ground and have some weight. But the astronauts will be able to jump high into the air and move in a completely different way. “I think 1/6ths gravity is going to be amazing,” Lindgren said. “Just as novel as weightlessness is. Getting to live and work in that 1/6th gravity is going to be phenomenal.”

For all humanity

To achieve both scientific and operational goals, the Artemis missions are going to need a wide variety of skills sets and approaches.

That’s why NASA has pointed out the diversity of its Artemis team, which includes men and women from a variety of different educational backgrounds and cultures. This can help avoid pitfalls that arise when everyone on a project tends to think in the same way and to have a similar approach. Lindgren, for example, has a medical background and is certified in emergency and aerospace medicine. Other members of the Artemis Team have backgrounds in science or engineering in addition to those who come from the military.

James Blair/NASA

“That diversity of background and culture, of educational background, it really brings a richness to our operations so that not all of us are approaching a problem as a fighter pilot, or as an engineer,” Lindgren said. “We’re bringing different perspectives and different backgrounds to that problem solving, and we’re really benefiting from that.”

And beyond the broad range of people in the NASA astronaut corps, the aim is to complete the Artemis mission with support from other countries as well, joining with international partners such as other space agencies. “This mission of getting back to the lunar surface is really for the benefit of humanity,” Lindgren said.

A personal goal

Leaving Earth and heading off to explore beyond our planet is the dream of every astronaut, and the 18 members of the Artemis Team, along with the entire NASA astronaut corps, are gearing up for this new mission with a great deal of excitement.

“For those of us who aspire to be astronauts, the idea of landing and walking on the moon is front and center. So to be a part of the team that’s going to accomplish that is really special,” Lindgren said.

Whether he is able to assist in a scientific discovery or to help learn how to support astronauts in exploring further than ever before, Lindgren said he’d be thrilled either way.

“I would love to be out on a lunar EVA [Extra Vehicular Activity] and identify a rock which helps us unlock the origins of the Earth and moon,” he said. “But I’d also love to be a part of that team that helps us refine our procedures and equipment so we can say definitively, ‘This is going great and we’re ready to tackle Mars.'”

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