Humans could stay on the moon for long periods of time this decade, a NASA official has told the BBC.
Howard Hu, who directs the Orion lunar spacecraft program for the agency, said habitats were needed to support science missions.
He said Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg that the launch of the Artemis rocket carrying Orion on Wednesday was a “historic day for human spaceflight.”
Orion is currently about 134,000 km (83,300 miles) from the Moon.
The 100-meter-tall Artemis rocket launched from Kennedy Space Center as part of NASA’s mission to bring astronauts back to the Earth satellite.
On top of the rocket sits the Orion spacecraft, unmanned for this first mission, but fitted with a “manikin” that will register the effects of flight on the human body.
Wednesday’s flight followed two previous launch attempts in August and September that were aborted during the countdown due to technical problems.
Mr. Hu told Laura Kuenssberg that it was “an incredible feeling” and “a dream” to watch Artemis take off.
“This is the first step we are taking towards long-term space exploration, not just for the United States, but for the entire world,” he said.
“And I think this is a historic day for NASA, but it’s also a historic day for all the people who love human spaceflight and space exploration.
“I mean, we’re going back to the moon, we’re working on a sustainable program, and this is the vehicle that’s going to carry the people that’s going to take us back to the moon.”
Mr. Hu explained that if the current Artemis flight were successful, the next would be with a crew, followed by a third that would land astronauts on the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 50 years ago in December 1972.
The current mission was going well, he told the BBC, with all systems working and the mission team preparing for the next firing of the Orion thrusters (the so-called burn) at lunchtime on Monday to launch the spacecraft into a distant orbit of the Orion Moon .
Mr. Hu admitted that watching the mission from Earth is not unlike being a concerned parent, but he said seeing the images and videos coming back from Orion “really gives that excitement and that Feeling of, ‘Wow, we’re on our way back to the moon’. “.
One of the most critical phases of the Artemis I mission is bringing the Orion module safely back to Earth. It will re-enter the planet’s atmosphere at 38,000 km/h (24,000 mph), or 32 times the speed of sound, and the shield on its underside will be exposed to temperatures approaching 3,000°C.
Once the safety of Artemis’ components and systems has been tested and proven, Mr. Hu said the plan is for humans to live on the moon “in this decade.”
A big part of the reason for going back to the moon is to find out if there’s water at the satellite’s south pole, he added, because that could be converted to provide a fuel for vehicles going deeper into space – for example to Mars.
“We will send people to the surface and they will live and do science on this surface,” Mr. Hu said.
“It’s going to be really, really important for us to learn a little bit beyond our Earth orbit and then take a big step when we go to Mars.
“And the Artemis missions allow us to have a sustainable platform and transportation system that we can use to learn how to operate in this space environment.”
The Orion capsule is scheduled to return to Earth on December 11th.
Watch the full interview with Nasa’s Howard Hu on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday November 20th
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