It’s time to go back to the moon.
Almost 50 years after the last Apollo mission ventured to the lunar surface, NASA has established a program that promises to land humans on unexplored lunar regions and eventually the surface of Mars — and it all begins with Artemis I.
It’s no coincidence that the Artemis program is named for the twin sister of Apollo from Greek mythology. Artemis will pick up where the famed Apollo program left off in 1972 by sending crewed missions to the moon, but in a new way.
Goals of the Artemis program include landing diverse crews of astronauts on the moon and exploring the shadowy lunar south pole for the first time. The ambitious effort also aims to establish a sustained presence on the moon and create reusable systems that can enable human exploration of Mars and perhaps beyond.
But none of this is possible without first taking one big leap. When Artemis I launches on September 3, the uncrewed mission will test every new component that will make future deep space exploration possible before humans make the journey in 2024 and 2025 aboard Artemis II and Artemis III, respectively.
The mission team expects liftoff of the new Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft on Saturday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
After launching from Earth, Artemis I will go on a 37-day mission. During the journey, the Orion spacecraft will travel 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) beyond the moon — 30,000 miles (48,000 kilometers) farther than the record set during Apollo 13. This path mimics the journey that the Artemis II crew will take in 2024.
It will be the farthest that any spacecraft built for humans has flown, according to NASA officials.
Historic launchpad 39B is no stranger to monster rockets, as NASA Administrator Bill Nelson pointed out at a news conference earlier in August. It was once the home of the Saturn V rocket, which carried the Apollo missions to the moon and lifted off with 7.6 million pounds of thrust. The SLS rocket will punch off the pad with 8.8 million pounds of thrust.
“As we embark on the first Artemis test flight, we recall this agency’s storied past, but our eyes are focused not on the immediate future but out there,” Nelson said.
“It’s a future where NASA will land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon. And on these increasingly complex missions, astronauts will live and work in deep space and we’ll develop the science and technology to send the first humans to Mars.”
A new generation of exploration
Returning to the moon, with an eye on an eventual trip to Mars, requires a new ride.
Lessons learned from the Apollo and shuttle programs informed the design of the Space Launch System rocket, the world’s most powerful rocket. The mega moon rocket will propel the spacecraft almost 1,000 times farther than the International Space Station’s location in low-Earth orbit. The SLS rocket will boost Orion to a speed of 22,600 miles per hour (36,370 kilometers per hour) to escape Earth’s gravity and reach the moon.
“It’s the only rocket that’s capable of sending Orion and a crew and supplies into deep space on a single launch,” said John Honeycutt, Space Launch System program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Atop the rocket is the Orion spacecraft, designed to carry a crew through deep space and safely return the astronauts to Earth.
The spacecraft has a crew module, a service module and a launch abort system that has the capability to take the spacecraft and its crew to safety during any emergency that could occur during launch or ascent. Orion’s trajectory through space will test the craft’s ability to maintain communication with Earth beyond the moon and protect its crew from radiation.
Beneath Orion is the European Service Module.
“It’s the power house side of the vehicle where it’s got the primary propulsion, power and life support resources we need for Artemis I,” said Howard Hu, Orion program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The Orion spacecraft has hardware and software that will allow future crews to have complete insight into what’s happening with their vehicle when they are thousands of miles from home, Hu said.
One of the biggest trials for Orion may be testing its heat shield, the largest one ever built.
When the spacecraft returns to Earth in October, it will face temperatures half as hot as the sun’s surface and hit the top of Earth’s atmosphere at 25,000 miles per hour (40,200 kilometers per hour) — that’s 32 times the speed of sound, Nelson said.
“Orion will come home faster and hotter than any spacecraft has before at 32 Mach,” Nelson said. “On the space shuttle, we were at 25 Mach, which is about 17,500 miles an hour (28,160 kilometers per hour).” (Mach 1 is the speed of sound.)
The heat shield has been tested on Earth, but returning from space is the one true test that simulations can’t completely replicate.
“Re-entry will be great to demonstrate our heat shield capability, making sure that the spacecraft comes home safely, and of course for future missions, protecting the crew,” Hu said.
The ultimate test
All of the objectives for the inaugural Artemis flight will demonstrate capabilities necessary for when Orion carries humans to deep space. The list includes an overall safe flight, the performance of the SLS rocket, testing the heat shield and retrieving the spacecraft once it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego.
Orion won’t carry a crew on this initial mission, but it will be full of data from the flight — including sensors attached to some very necessary passengers. Three mannequins will ride aboard Artemis I to simulate what humans might experience, and the data from their sensors will reveal how much vibration they experienced, as well as radiation exposure and the utility of their flight suits and radiation vests.
Because Artemis I is a test flight, the Artemis team is willing to take more risks, said Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis I mission manager. Taking these risks now can eliminate issues when actual crew are aboard, he said.
But more than all of the data and science the mission team will garner is the idea of resuming human space exploration by taking a big step forward from Apollo to Artemis.
“Artemis I shows that we can do big things things that unite people, things that benefit humanity — things like Apollo that inspire the world,” Nelson said. “And to all of us that gaze up at the moon, dreaming of the day humankind returns to the lunar surface: Folks, we’re here, we are going back and that journey, our journey, begins with Artemis I.”