Fifty years after humans first stepped onto the moon during the Apollo 11 mission, NASA has created a goal of landing the first woman and next man on the moon’s South Pole by 2024. NASA has dubbed this path back to the moon Artemis, after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.
The agency also wants to establish a sustained human presence on and around the moon by 2028.
The program will involve the Orion spacecraft, the Gateway and the Space Launch System rocket, known as SLS. One of the key features of the program is sustainable space exploration with reusable spacecraft and architecture, which could later take humans to Mars.
“Similar to the 1960s, we too have an opportunity to take a giant leap forward for all of humanity,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “President Trump and Vice President Pence have given us a bold direction to return to the Moon by 2024 and then go forward to Mars. Their direction is not empty rhetoric. They have backed up their vision with the budget requests needed to accomplish this objective. NASA is calling this the Artemis program in honor of Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, the goddess of the Moon. And we are well on our way to getting this done.”
The completed Orion crew capsule was recently revealed, as were the Artemis logo and colors. The A is meant to symbolize an arrowhead from the goddess Artemis’ quiver of arrows, which also represents launch. Other factors of the design represent the Earth, the moon and our trajectory from the moon to Mars. The colors include Earth blue, rocket red and lunar silver.
How does it work?
The SLS rocket will send Orion, astronauts and large cargo to the moon all at once, NASA said. And in the future, it could support robotic missions to Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
The Orion spacecraft can carry four crew members and support deep-space missions, unlike previous craft designed for short flights.
Orion will dock at the Gateway, a spaceship that will go into orbit around the moon and be used as a lunar outpost. About 250,000 miles from Earth, the Gateway will allow easier access to the entire surface of the moon and potentially deep-space exploration.
“The moon is the logical place to learn how we do things,” said Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute. “It’s easier than going to Mars, but the moon is close and convenient. There, we can start building up the infrastructure that makes Mars possible.”
Currently, the focus is on the moon, but NASA sees these concepts as workable for a Mars mission, as well.
“The goal is to try to develop systems that could be used in either location with as little change as possible,” said Michelle Rucker, Mars Integration Group lead.
Regarding the moon and Mars, initial launches of cargo will go up before humans, and the SLS will have that heavy launch capability, Rucker said. The Gateway could even be used as an assembly point for the architecture required to stay on the moon and Mars.
NASA’s Orion spacecraft was successfully tested in July.
A test version of the Orion crew capsule launched without crew aboard to ensure that when the craft carrying humans ascends to space, the abort system can pull the crew module away if there’s an emergency.
“This test is extremely important,” said Mark Kirasich, Orion program manager. “Our Launch Abort System is a key safety feature of the spacecraft – it will protect the crew members who fly onboard Orion during the most challenging part of the mission, which is the ascent phase.”
The rocket that will carry Orion to space will be the most powerful engine ever used, which means a more powerful launch abort system is required to keep the crew safe in the event of a problem.
“In an abort scenario, the Launch Abort System and crew module essentially become its own aircraft,” said Chuck Dingell, chief engineer for Orion. “Not only do we want to get that craft away from a dangerous scenario quickly, but we also want to control it so that it flies in a direction as far as possible from the rocket. It’s also easier to control a vehicle with a forward center of gravity and that is heavier on the front end.”
For the final design, the crew will also have an abort button they can use.
Getting back to the moon
Once final testing is complete, Artemis 1 has an estimated launch of November 2020 from Kennedy Space Center. The first mission will be unmanned. The Orion crew capsule and service modules will be on board.
It will be sent on a trajectory to the moon, where it will perform a flyby within 60 miles of the surface and enter a distant retrograde orbit that takes Artemis 1 farther than any of the Apollo vehicles, said Nujoud Merancy, Exploration Mission Planning and Analysis lead for the Orion spacecraft.
The orbit will last between six and 20 days, depending on when the launch occurs. When it returns to Earth, Artemis 1 will splash down in the Pacific Ocean.
This mission will serve as the main certification that tests the vehicle from tip to tail, Merancy said. It allows NASA to test the heat shield during high-speed re-entry and other conditions that can’t be replicated or truly tested on the ground.
On board will be different scientific payloads, as well as examples of radiation protection garments. There are also plans to put a communication unit on board that can be activated once Artemis 1 has launched, allowing it to take pictures and become interactive.
It’s the first step in returning to the moon.
Astronauts will launch on Artemis 2, and the first woman and next man to walk on the moon will launch on Artemis 3.
Meanwhile, NASA is seeking input from the private sector for the lunar landers and landing system from the Gateway to the lunar surface.
“The Gateway will be our home base in lunar orbit – it is our command and service module for missions to the surface of the Moon. Using it as a port for the human landing system, its orbit around the Moon will give us access to the entire lunar surface, and a place to refurbish and refuel the landing system,” Bridenstine said. “This is no small feat, and building a 21st century landing system takes the best of our government and private-sector teams.”