SDCC 2020: Back to the Moon and Beyond with NASA - Panel Coverage

I have occasionally wondered why the NASA program that sent people to the Moon was named after Apollo, the sun god, and not Artemis, goddess of the moon. Well, apparently, I’m not alone. NASA’s new initiative to return to the Moon is called the Artemis program. And fittingly, one of their goals is to put the first woman on the moon.

This was just one part of the discussion in the Comic-Con @ Home panel, Back to the Moon and Beyond with NASA, which premiered Saturday, July 25th. Just half an hour long, the panel was nonetheless chock full of amazing details about the science of space exploration and its practical applications over the next few years.

The panel was moderated by William Shatner and featured NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Kjell Lindgren, along with space suit engineer Lindsay Aitchison and space technology expert LaNetra Tate. Despite his long and distinguished career as one of America’s favorite space captains, Shatner admits that he knows very little about the science of actual space travel. Fortunately, these experts were able to explain things in a way that’s easy for laypeople to understand. For instance, when he asked, “What’s the space shuttle going to look like?” Aitchison replied, “Big. Very big.”

NASA plans to approach things similarly to the way they did in the '60s with the Apollo missions. They’ll have a couple of missions to orbit the Moon before sending Artemis 3 to land there in 2024. Being that we did this already, over 50 years ago, you’d think it would be a piece of cake. But the goal now is a little more complicated. They don’t just want to land on the Moon, walk around for a few hours, and come home. By 2028, they want a sustainable, permanent presence there.

According to Nicole Mann, this involves first building an outpost in orbit around the Moon, called the Gateway, which can sustain human life for 30 days at a time. From there, astronauts will be able to go down to the moon’s surface.

On the surface, they’ll build a couple of different habitats which Lindsay Aitchison talked a bit about. The main one will be a fixed, cylindrical “can” that can also sustain life for long periods of time. Additionally, they also want a mobile habitat which Aitchison described as being a bit like an RV. That RV can sustain human life for 30 days, allowing the inhabitants to drive around the Moon and explore other areas.

But first thing's first. Before we can go back to the Moon, first we need to improve our technology. That’s why Aitchison is helping to design new spacesuits to replace the bulky, awkward ones that astronauts are used to. These suits, which were demonstrated in a video during the panel, include full range of arm motion, as well as the ability to bend over. They’ll also be modular, allowing you to size each piece to the wearer and quickly assemble a suit that will fit them perfectly.

In addition to new suits, the astronauts also need training. Kjell Lindgren talked a bit about that process. It begins with two years as an astronaut candidate, learning all of the different disciplines involved, from ship repairs to spacewalking. Even after that’s finished, though, the training never really stops. Lindgren has been at it for over 10 years. For him, though, it’s definitely worth the effort. He says that the best job off the Earth is flying in space. The best job on the Earth is training for space flight.

Once they’ve been trained, the astronauts then need to get to the Moon. Space travel takes a huge amount of energy, and scientists like LaNetra Tate are working to make it more efficient. They’re designing a method of ionic propulsion which Tate compared to Star Wars—much to Shatner’s chagrin, as he feigned outrage at the very mention of that other sci-fi franchise. She quickly course-corrected and compared it instead to an episode of Star Trek.

Additionally, NASA is looking at using solar-electric power. It’s a more efficient energy source which could allow for longer missions. Given how much fuel is required for space travel, how much it costs, and how much it weighs, replacing part or all of it with a renewable energy source seems like a smart plan.

Shatner also asked the panel if science fiction had influenced their career path at all or inspired them to do what they do. They all agreed that a love of sci-fi had been a significant influence in their lives. For Lindgren, that love of sci-fi quickly translated to a love of real space travel, when a teacher wheeled a television into the classroom in 1981, so he could see the space shuttle launch. The same is true for Tate, who grew up in Florida and saw the launches firsthand. She’s now happy to be able to pass on that love of space to her son. Mann, in discussing loving science fiction as a child, admitted that that love continues with her to this day, saying, “The child is still me.”

Of course, being inspired by science fiction to a career of space exploration is all well and good, but real-world, practical space travel is not without its risks. Shatner pointed out disasters like the Challenger and Columbia and asked how we can avoid things like that in the future.

The answer is to learn from them. These tragedies have been studied extensively to provide insight into how to create safer equipment going forward. The key, according to Tate, is developing infrastructure that can aid in hazard avoidance.

This is part of her area of expertise, which includes ISRU: in-situ resource utilization. That means using the resources that exist naturally on the Moon—metals, minerals, natural gases, and more—to fill their needs for energy, materials, etc.

Scientists are hoping that the moon’s natural resources include water. One of their goals is to explore the Moon’s south pole and see what it has to offer. In 2023, a year before their planned manned mission, they’ll be sending a rover named Viper which will take samples of the south pole for analysis. Is the ice composed of drinkable water? What excavation tools will they need to mine those resources? These are the questions that need to be answered, before they can take their space RV to explore the south pole in depth.

Ultimately, NASA’s goal in returning to the Moon is in preparation for eventually mounting a manned mission to Mars. Which prompted Shatner to conclude the panel with the question, “Why go to Mars?” To which Tate immediately answered, “Why not?”

She then added that the real reason is to inspire the next generation. She’s right, of course. Continuing to push the boundaries of science and explore new frontiers will hopefully pave the way for our children and grandchildren to go even further, do even more, and succeed in ways we’ve never dreamed of. That, in a nutshell, is what space exploration and the science behind it are all about.

Although taking a road trip across the Moon in a space RV is, in my opinion, a very close second.

If you’ve enjoyed this panel coverage for Comic-Con @ Home, you can check out the panel for yourself at this link!

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