U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced last week (December 9, 2020) that NASA has selected 18 astronauts from its corps to form what it’s calling the Artemis Team. Two of these astronauts are expected to become the first American man and woman to return to the moon since 1972. That crewed lunar mission might launch as early as 2024 (although there’ve been recent rumblings the date may be pushed back). Pence introduced the astronauts of the Artemis Team on December 9 during the 8th National Space Council meeting at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. You can see them introduce themselves in the video above (starting at about the 1-minute mark).
NASA said it will announce flight assignments for astronauts later, pulling from the Artemis Team.
Meanwhile, despite a reported component failure on the cone-shaped Orion space capsule – the vehicle that will carry the astronauts – all indications so far are that the first Artemis mission, an uncrewed mission, is still scheduled for launch in November 2021 from the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. That mission will be Artemis 1.
The November 2021 launch will be a test of both the Orion capsule and the rocket intended to launch it, called the SLS, or Space Launch System.
The second Artemis mission – planned for 2023 – will test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard. It’s expected to be the first crewed mission to travel beyond low Earth orbit since Apollo 17 in 1972.
Then will come the Artemis 3 mission, the one expected to carry astronauts back to the moon, hopefully in 2024. The Artemis program is part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Space Policy Directive 1, approved in December 2017. The stated goal is to return American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972 and to:
… establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars.
The Artemis program is named for the sister to Apollo in Greek mythology.
In the Artemis 1 mission, the crew module Orion and SLS rocket are expected to launch together from Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39B. The SLS – a rocket more powerful than the Saturn V that propelled the Apollo astronauts to the moon – will produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust (39 million newtons) with its five boosters and four engines during liftoff to bring six million pounds (2.7 million kg) of vehicle into orbit.
After releasing the boosters, the engines will shut down and the core stage (main body) of the rocket will separate from the spacecraft.
Following that are a series of technical propulsion stages that will give Orion the brawn needed to leave Earth’s orbit and head in the direction of the moon, but not before dropping off a number of small satellites called CubeSats while it’s on its way. These CubeSats will perform a series of experiments and demonstrations unrelated to the Artemis mission in deep space, such as exposing living microorganisms to a deep space radiation environment for the first time in more than 40 years.
Once in lunar orbit, Orion will collect data and enable mission controllers to assess its performance for about a week. When ready to return home, Orion will use its in-space propulsion system provided by the European Space Agency (ESA), together with the moon’s gravity, to head back to Earth.
The ESA service module will provide – apart from in-space propulsion – power, air and water for the astronauts of the future missions.
About three weeks and more than 1.3 million miles (2.1 million km) later, the Artemis 1 mission will end with a test of Orion’s return capabilities by directing it to land near a recovery ship off the coast of Baja, California. All of this might sound like a lot of intricate, technical work. The NASA video below illustrates the entire Artemis 1 mission.
Although the coronavirus pandemic slowed down the testing of SLS, the process is now resuming at the agency’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Boeing led the construction of the megarocket SLS and is now engaged in a testing process called the green run. It’ll culminate in a hot-fire test, where the rocket fires up its engines while tied to the ground, and endures each step of a launch as if it were really taking place. This test run was originally scheduled for November 2020, and is now planned for the end of December. This delay may leave little margin to keep things on track for the Artemis 1 launch in 2021.
After the hot fire test, the core stage will be refurbished and brought to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for even more tests. The development of Orion, led by Lockheed Martin and Airbus Defense and Space, has encountered its own delays, although the spacecraft is on track to begin Artemis 1 launch preparations in the first part of 2021.
The second mission – the crewed Orion capsule test mission, Artemis 2 – is scheduled for August 2023.
Future crewed exploration missions onboard Orion will dock with Gateway, an outpost NASA plans to build in orbit around the moon to support sustainable, long-term human return to the lunar surface. NASA lunar director Marshall Smith said:
We don’t need to take the giant leap all at one time. For a future mission, after we demonstrate that we can get to the moon and get a lander to work, we can then have them both dock with the Gateway.
Bottom line: NASA has selected 18 astronauts from its corps to form what it’s calling the Artemis Team. Two members of this team are expected to become the first American man and woman to return to the moon since 1972. The first Artemis mission – an uncrewed test mission known as Artemis 1 – is still expected to launch in November 2021. The Artemis program aims to carry humans back to the moon and eventually onwards to Mars.
Lia Rovira is a Physics graduate and Editorial Assistant of EarthSky, contributing also as a field correspondent with a long-time passion for space exploration that began early in her college career. She started her blog SkyFeed in 2018, which earned a mention in Feedspot’s “Top 50 Space Blogs to Follow," has been published in Smore Magazine, and led her to launch a communications career in tandem with her planetary passion. She currently resides in Southern California with her fiancé and small pug pup.