This week, NASA has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which saw humans step foot on the moon for the first time.
But since Neil Armstrong’s first ‘small step’ onto the lunar surface, a total of just 12 astronauts have walked on the moon.
Unsurprisingly, the question on everyone’s lips since then has been the same – when will NASA return to the moon?
Here’s everything you need to know about NASA’s moon plans, including when and why the space agency plans to return to our lunar satellite.
When will NASA send humans back to the moon?
US President Donald Trump has set NASA the ambitious deadline to send humans back to the moon by 2024.
The programme has been named ‘Artemis’ – the Greek goddess of the moon and twin sister to Apollo.
What will the Artemis mission involve?
The missions will rely on the ‘Gateway’ – a service module that will orbit the moon.
William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, said: “The Gateway can be positioned in a variety of orbits around the Moon, allows for access to entire lunar surface, and supports development of a reusable human lander system.
“Resiliency and reusability are key for sustainable human lunar exploration, and that’s what the Gateway gives us.”
The human lander will operate from the Gateway, allowing crews to descend from the module onto the lunar surface, and return after they complete their expedition.
Why does NASA want to send humans back to the moon?
While NASA already has several samples from the surface of the moon, it hopes that the Artemis missions will allow scientists to examine the surface from up close.
NASA explained: “This will teach us how to move safely across lunar soil, known as regolith; how to build infrastructure on top of it; and how to keep humans safe in space.”
In the long-run, NASA hopes that its work at the moon will prepare it for the next big step – missions to Mars.
Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, said: “Using new landers, robots and eventually humans, we will conduct science and technology demonstrations across the entire lunar surface of the Moon to learn more about resources on the Moon and how we can use them for future exploration.
“We will move forward to the Moon, this time to stay. And then we’ll take what we learn on the Moon, and go to Mars.”
What challenges is NASA facing?
Returning to the moon is no mean feat.
As it stands, NASA doesn’t currently have a rocket ready to fly humans into deep space, and hasn’t developed a lunar lander since Apollo ended back in 1972.
And as a federal agency, NASA must rely on a budget from the US Congress, who haven’t always supported NASA’s ambitions in the past.
Speaking to Nature, Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science division, explained that pulling this off ‘will require everyone to work at high speed — and multiple stakeholders control that speed.’
Mr Zurbuchen added: “There are many failure modes that one could imagine.”
Who else is trying to send humans to the moon?
NASA faces stiff competition from the China National Space Agency.
China has had spacecrafts in lunar orbit since 2007, and recently pull off an impressive feat, as it landed a rover on the moon’s mysterious ‘dark side.’
Now, the space agency has revealed its moon plans, inducing three missions to the moon’s south pole in the 2020s, as well as a polar research outpost before 2030.
In their paper, published in Science, researchers led by Chunlai Li, wrote: “Through these missions, a robotic scientific research station prototype will be built on the moon.
“Exploration targets will shift focus from development of space technology, to space science and space applications.
“The Lunar Scientific Research Station, with the capability of long-duration operations and intelligent operational control, will be designed to carry out technical verification and validation of resource development and utilisation technology, explore prospects for applications, enhance the ability of lunar science and resource application, and lay the foundation for the construction and operation of future Lunar Research Stations, as well as exploration of the moon by humans.”