Artemis 1 (hopefully) this summer. Next up, the moon
Artemis 1: Rolled out and ready to launch
Many earthly spacecraft have visited the moon, but now NASA is preparing to send people back there. NASA’s moon mission is called Artemis, and the space agency has created its most powerful rocket ever – the Space Launch System, or SLS – to launch it. The rocket provides the propulsion for the Orion spacecraft, which will be uncrewed in the first two Artemis launches. In the third Artemis launch – scheduled for no earlier than 2025 – the Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts. As of mid-June 2022, the Orion spacecraft is sitting atop the SLS at Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Soon, SLS and Orion will head into space together for an uncrewed test run – Artemis 1 – hopefully blasting off during summer 2022.
The last time humans set foot on the moon was December 13-14, 1972.
Following Artemis 1, hopefully no later than 2024, Artemis 2 will carry the first-ever crewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft. Artemis 3 – which will fly astronauts to the moon – is currently targeted for no earlier than 2025. That mission might be the one to land humans on the lunar surface. The Artemis mission alsoo has as one of its short-term goals sending the first woman and first person of color to the moon’s surface.
The Orion spacecraft, a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, will ride atop the SLS for the first time in summer 2022. Orion has already undergone an Earth-orbiting test in 2014.
But the longterm goal of Artemis looks farther into the future. It’s to establish the first long-term human presence on the moon. Then, NASA says, it’ll use what it learns on and around the moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.
Artemis I will be an uncrewed mission. So what is @NASA_Orion doing during the journey to and from the Moon during the mission?
Testing the waters for the astronaut crew of Artemis II. See how. ? pic.twitter.com/LfezEXodKE
— Lockheed Martin Space (@LMSpace) June 16, 2022
Artemis 1, 2 and 3
According to NASA, Artemis 1 will break records:
Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station, and return home faster and hotter than ever before.
Approximately two years after Artemis 1, it will be Artemis 2‘s turn. Artemis 2 is a crewed flight that’ll perform tests in Earth orbit. Finally, no earlier than 2025 but hopefully around that time – if the program can stay on schedule – the Artemis 3 crew of four people will gear up for the 236,000-miles-long (380,000-km-long) journey to the moon. Overall, they’ll be in space about a month. The four astronauts will spend six days at our natural satellite’s south pole.
Details of Artemis 1 mission
Visionaries have been dreaming for decades of a return to the moon. And – although NASA first announced the Artemis program in December 2017 – the development of the Orion crew capsule and the powerful SLS that’ll blast it into orbit officially began earlier, in 2011.
For the Artemis 1 mission – with liftoff in perhaps late summer 2022 – the powerful launch system will send the Orion capsule up from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Together, they’ll launch from the historic Launch Complex 39, originally built as the Apollo program’s Moonport and later modified for the Space Shuttle program. NASA explained:
During launch and ascent, SLS will produce 8.8 million pounds of maximum thrust, 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rocket.
It’ll need that much thrust to send the 6 million pounds (3 million kg) of vehicle into orbit. As explained by Space.com, although Orion won’t have a human crew during Artemis 1:
… the commander’s seat will be occupied by a mannequin dressed in the Orion Crew Survival System, a special suit designed to help protect against radiation. Two radiation sensors will monitor radiation levels.
The mannequin will be strapped in, but the weightless environment also needs testing. So NASA is flying a ‘zero gravity indicator’ in the form of a Snoopy cuddly toy dressed in an iconic orange NASA jumpsuit. The comic strip character has a long association with lunar exploration: the crew of Apollo 10 used it as nickname for their lunar module.
How does Artemis 1 compare with Apollo?
The propulsion is largely the same. It is very comparable to the Apollo era.
But of course after 50 years, there’s been technological progress. Berthe commented, for example:
… There have been vast improvements in solar cells.
These are devices that directly convert the energy of light into electrical energy. Orion will derive most of its power from its solar cells.
But naturally the biggest difference is computing power. Computers may have been on the horizon in the Apollo era – the late 1960s and early ’70s – but, as reported at ZMEscience.com:
Your smartphone is millions of times more powerful than the Apollo 11 guidance computers
So the Artemis program will benefit from our vast modern computing power. As Berthe said:
Computing power is another major improvement. We can program much more complex operations now. The crew don’t need to intervene directly in every nitty-gritty detail.
Piloting the mission
There was a lot of talk in Tom Wolfe‘s famous 1979 book (later a classic movie, and recently a series) The Right Stuff about the idea of spam in a can. That was the intrepid test pilot Chuck Yeager‘s description of the early Mercury flights, which reduced the role of the astronauts to that of passengers (rather than pilots).
The Apollo missions had pilots, and of course pilots are among the most glamorous of spacemen, both in science fiction and in reality. As we go further into the Artemis era, it’ll be fun to hear how much piloting takes place aboard the eventual Artemis 3 moon mission.
Humans on the moon by 2025?
And of course there’s the decades-old debate about why we need to go to the moon at all. After all, over the past decades, we’ve learned a lot about the moon via robotic spacecraft, both orbiters and landers. Plenty of people will argue – and have argued since the Apollo era – that sending humans to the moon is a waste of time, money and resources. But the answer boils down to a number of things, one of them being efficiency. Berthe said:
An astronaut will do in a 6-hour [moonwalk] what a robot can do in 6 months. It is more expensive, but it is more efficient.
And the main reason, of course, is that the moon is a stepping stone to space. The moon’s gravity is only 1/6 of the Earth’s. It’s much easier to blast a rocket into space from the moon than from Earth. This makes the moon a great base for future exploration of the solar system.
Aiming for the lunar south pole
The crew of Artemis 3 is aiming for the moon’s south pole, a place that scientists have discovered in recent decades has large amounts of water ice. Water contains oxygen, so processing it will make it possible for future astronauts to stay for longer stretches of time, even enabling us to have a permanent presence on the moon.
In the end, it’s all a part of humanity’s natural wanderlust. Future historians might look back on this as the moment humanity took a giant leap when returning to the moon, maybe this time for good.
Bottom line: As of mid-June 2022, the Orion spacecraft is sitting atop the SLS at Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Hopefully, this summer SLS and Orion will head into space together for an uncrewed test, Artemis 1.