Artemis: Back to the Future Past?

Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, deploys two components of the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package on the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity in 1969. A seismic experiment is in his left hand, and in his right is a laser-reflecting panel. Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, mission commander, took this photograph. (Credits: NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center)

UPDATE: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was emphatic today that the first crewed landing and subsequent ones would land at the lunar south pole. He said remarks he made last week were misinterpreted.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

For 18 months NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Vice President Mike Pence and other Trump Administration officials have repeatedly promised to land the next man and the first woman at the south pole of the moon in 2024.

Now, that plan has apparently changed.

Last week, Bridenstine hinted that the Artemis III astronauts might not be headed to the south pole after all. Instead, they might revisit one of the six Apollo landing sites that astronauts explored between 1969 to 1972, he said.

NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Kathy Lueders did little to clarify the situation when asked about Bridenstine’s comments. She said NASA is working on various mission scenarios and would let us all know once they have figured it all out.

That time has apparently arrived. Bridenstine, Lueders and other agency officials are having a media teleconference today at 5 p.m. EDT to discuss the agency’s latest Artemis program exploration plans.

Evidence that the Artemis III astronauts are not heading to the south pole is right there there in the announcement (emphasis mine).

“About 18 months ago, NASA accepted a bold challenge to send the first woman and next man to the surface of the Moon in 2024,” the press release said.

The standard mention of the astronauts landing at the south pole is missing.

Audio of the call will stream live on the agency’s website. Other NASA participants in teleconference will include:

  • James Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate
  • Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate

Bridenstine didn’t explain why the astronauts might be revisiting one of NASA’s greatest hits. My guess is a combination of complexity, safety and schedule considerations would be the key factors.

A polar landing is a lot more complicated technically than touching down at one of the Apollo sites in the equatorial region. Much more energy is required. And a polar landing has never been attempted before.

NASA’s plan is to have the astronauts land on only the first crewed flight of the Artemis lander. It might be less risky to revisit an Apollo site than to attempt a polar mission.

Finally, there’s the Trump Administration’s insistent that the first landing take place in 2024. A polar landing might push Artemis III beyond that crucial election year.

That’s my best guess. I could be wrong. We’ll find out more in about five hours.