Some time in the next decade, something will happen that hasn’t occurred since President Nixon was in office and the Soviet Union bestrode the world like a colossus. A spidery shaped space vehicle, which we will call the Artemis after the Greek Moon goddess, will descend from lunar orbit, firing bursts from a descent engine to slow its fall. The gray, blasted lunar landscape will loom closer and closer. Computer readouts on board the space vehicle will indicate the distance of the vehicle from the lunar surface, the rate of descent, available fuel, and other data. Finally, the flame of the descent engine will kiss the lunar surface, probably at the Aitken Basin near the lunar South Pole, kicking up dust. The landing pads will touch the lunar surface and the descent engine will switch off.
A voice, which will be heard not only around the Earth, but certain places in orbit around the Earth, will say something like this: “Houston, Aitken Base here, the Artemis has landed.”
The four person crew, with the assistance of Mission Control in Houston, will do a diagnostic of all the systems on board their space craft. Meanwhile, the space craft that brought then to lunar orbit, the Orion, will orbit silently overhead, various instruments pointed at the Moon for the opportunity to gather data.
A few hours after the Artemis has touched down, one of the astronauts, clad in a Moon suit, will enter the airlock, close the inner door, and depressurize it. Then he will open the outer door and be the first person to see the magnificent desolation of the lunar surface with his own eyes for about four and a half decades. The Earth will be low over the northern horizon.
He will descend down a ladder stopping briefly on the landing pad to check to see how the Artemis has landed. Then he will stop off the landing pad and place upon the Moon the first foot prints in four and a half decades. No doubt he will say something as profound and as historic as Neil Armstrong’s, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The next task of the next person on the Moon, and the other three who will follow him, will be to unload the cargo compartment. There will be a lunar rover, larger and more sophisticated than the ones used during the Apollo era. There will be a pilot plant to test technologies for extracting oxygen from lunar soil. Besides scientific exploration, one of the goals of the next lunar expedition will be to test technologies designed to allow humans to live on the Moon. Those will include, on this and subsequent expeditions, not only the lunar oxygen plant, but prospecting ice from the lunar South Pole, solar and nuclear energy, and even-in the fullness of time-lunar green houses to grow food and recycle breathable oxygen.
The astronauts will also have prospecting equipment; hammers, picks, core samplers, and so on. There will be a small, lunar based telescope and several other experiments, some stationary, some mobile that will be deployed and left behind on the Moon.
At some point, the lunar astronauts will raise the flags of the various countries that they hail from. The seventh American flag to fly over the lunar surface will share glory with the first flags from the one or two other countries that will send astronauts to the Moon. There will be a broadcast from world leaders, led off by the President of the United States. Finally, the astronauts will take soil and rock samples from around the landing site, before returning to the Artemis space craft to eat, sleep, and prepare for the rest of the expedition.
The next expedition back to the Moon will spend a week on the lunar surface, using the lunar rover to travel to various sites to take geological samples and to deploy experiments. A panel of the National Research Council has laid out the course of the next scientific exploration of the Moon. The priorities outlined by the panel included determining the composition and structure of the lunar interior, better understanding the lunar atmosphere, evaluating the moon’s potential as “an observation platform” for studying the Earth, the relationship of the sun and Earth, and broader astronomy and astrophysics. The efforts of this and subsequent expeditions to the Moon will be directed toward these goals.
At least once, the astronauts will venture to the permanently shadowed portion of the lunar South Pole to prospect for ice. While it is likely that robotic precursor probes will have already confirmed the presence of ice, the astronauts will be able to take core samples which will be taken back to Earth in special, refrigerated containers.
It will be in this permanently darkened region that the lunar telescope will be left. The telescope will be left to scan the heavens from the rock hard, stable lunar surface. Other experiments, including robotic rovers, will be left behind to study lunar phenomenon long after the astronauts have gone home.
With the most watched week, so far, in the 21st Century over, the astronauts will return to lunar orbit with their precious cargo of rock and soil samples, video recordings, and other data. The ascent stage of the Artemis will dock with the Orion and the astronauts will transfer themselves and their cargo to the space craft that will take them home. The Orion will separate from the Artemis ascent stage, which will be allowed to crash on the lunar surface. The Orion’s engine will blast the space craft out of lunar orbit into a trajectory that it take it home.
A few days later, the crew module of the Orion will separate from the service module, and then descend into Earth’s atmosphere. A combination of a heat shield, retro rockets, and finally air bags will allow the Orion to touch down in the dry lake bed of Edwards Air Force Base in California. And thus will end the next expedition to the Moon.