Earth's moon is far from being a "been there, done that" world, notwithstanding a dozen Apollo short-stay visitors between 1969 and 1972.
Today, our celestial neighbor could serve as homeland for a bevy of scientific and commercial interests, from cranking out made-on-the-moon oxygen and fuels to installing antennas that scan the heavens for signs of other technological civilizations. Lunar research can even surrender basic clues about the formation of our solar system, and Earth itself.
NASA's Artemis program to "reboot" the moon or at least human activity there will kick-start by landing the first woman and first person of color on the moon at a lunar south polar region no earlier than 2025. The objective is to utilize innovative technologies so that Artemis moonwalkers can explore more of the lunar surface than ever before and forge the first long-term presence on the moon.
However, a 21st-century human return to that world to perform sustained or perhaps even permanent moon operations will not be trouble-free.
In many ways, NASA's forward-looking vision is caught between a moon rock and a hard place, having to first develop the technologies required to give crews the wherewithal for longer and more sustainable operations on the lunar surface.
What does 'sustainable' mean?
NASA is getting its lunar act together by first mustering up what's needed early for human exploration of the moon via the Artemis program. The agency will later attempt to harness the technologies and skills necessary for a sustainable, "live off the land" approach for a lunar base.
Oddly, the meaning of the term "sustainable" seems to be up for grabs. For instance, the April release of the U.S. National Academies Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032 noted that NASA has used the word to describe only one goal for human lunar exploration under the auspices of Artemis.
As "sustainable" has not yet explicitly been defined in this context, the report states, a working definition was crafted to mean that there are "widely accepted reasons to continue human lunar exploration that justify the continued investment, commitment, and risk beyond a few missions."