artemis1 launchpad

So are we going back to the moon?

We are! And if NASA’s hopes and plans come true, not just “back,” but this time to stay.

What is Artemis 1?

The uncrewed Artemis 1 mission — repeatedly delayed but set to launch as soon as Saturday — is the first in a series of planned missions marking NASA’s return to the moon. In two years, Artemis 2 will launch a crew into lunar orbit. Artemis 3 is the planned mission that will return humans to the lunar surface, landing the first woman and the first person of color on the moon. That mission is planned for 2025, though many observers wonder if such an ambitious schedule can be met.

Dates and plans are likely subject to change, but the Artemis program (named after Apollo’s twin sister) is moving forward. It is the first effort to send humans into deep space since the end of Apollo in 1972, 50 years ago.

What rocket does Artemis 1 use?

The Artemis 1 mission will be the first launch of NASA’s “mega moon rocket,” the Space Launch System (SLS), which, if successful, will be the most powerful rocket ever. Based on a combination of new technology and legacy propulsion systems from the space shuttle era, SLS is years behind schedule and over budget. But it has its supporters in Congress and, as some note, like space policy expert Casey Dreyer of the Planetary Society, The SLS was never intended to compete with the recent rise of reusable spacecraft. However, some believe that the SLS will not outlive these newer vehicles. For now though, this is our trip to the moon.

Each Artemis mission, at least initially, will cost about $4 billion. Critics point to cost and delays. Advocates point to exciting new science, the possibility that humans could live on another world for the long term and do so sustainably, and the likely inspiration such a program provides to humanity and industry. Often quoted: The Apollo homing computer was the first major miniaturization of computers—and all you have to do is pull out your smartphone to see where it’s leading.

The engines used in the main stage of the Space Launch System are repurposed main engines from the Space Shuttle. (Credit: NASA)

When is the launch?

NASA is targeting a launch on Saturday, September 3rd between 2:17 PM and 4:17 PM EDT.

The first launch window opened for two hours on Monday, August 29 at 8:33 a.m. EDT. Launch windows are set because flight controllers must account for the motion of the Earth, the Moon, and the rocket itself.

But the rocket didn’t fire. NASA managers briefed the press after a grueling few hours, pointing out a few mistakes, including a blip that delayed refueling, an irritating hydrogen leak, and a valve problem. The main brake was one of the main engines of the main stage, which did not cool to the temperature required for launch. Still, even if all of this was resolved, there were weather complications during the launch window that would have halted the attempt.

If SLS does not launch on Saturday, another window appears on Monday, September 5, around 5:00 PM EDT. More windows will then open later this fall.

What is the mission?

After liftoff, the Orion capsule and its service module, built by the European Space Agency (ESA), will go into Earth orbit and the solar panels will deploy. Then, about 90 minutes into the mission, the Intermediate Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) will light up for about 20 minutes. This is translunar injection (TLI), the rocket burn that will take Orion out of Earth orbit and on its way to the Moon. After TLI, the ICPS will be jettisoned and Artemis 1 will be on its way to a four-day journey to the Moon. It will happen on the way launch 10 CubeSats — small, inexpensive satellites — with research purposes ranging from studying lunar water ice to measuring radiation in deep space.

For the Artemis 1 “crew”, NASA provided one male dummy, while ESA contributed two partial female dummies. The ESA dummies are designed to study the effects of radiation, as breast and ovarian cancer have a higher chance of developing due to radiation exposure. (Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin/DLR)

NASA is stressing the craft beyond normal parameters on this test flight, but don’t worry, there’s no one on board but a set of full and partial mannequins equipped with sensors to monitor the effects of radiation on future human astronauts. The dummies are named Commander Munikin Campos, Helga and Zohar. The last name of the commander is a a gesture of honor engineer Arturo Campos, who played a key role in the return of Apollo 13 from its near-fatal lunar mission.

As Orion approaches the moon on its sixth day in space, it will make a flyby of the moon, descending to within 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the lunar surface. As he does so, he will fire his missiles – but not to slow down. Instead, it will increase its momentum to carry it further away from the Moon and into its eventual lunar orbit.

That’s because, unlike the Apollo missions, which stuck to a narrow, nearly circular orbit around the moon, Artemis 1 will use a much wider orbit called far retrograde orbit (DRO). (“Retrograde” means that the ship will be moving in an orbit opposite to the direction in which the Moon orbits the Earth.)

On the tenth day of the mission, Artemis will again fire its engines – this time to slow down and finally enter DRO, where it will remain for 16 days. While in this orbit, Orion will venture further into space than any human-powered spacecraft in history. The furthest point of its orbit will be 40,000 miles (64,000 km) from the far side of the Moon, breaking the record held by Apollo 13.

Eventually, NASA and its international partners will position a small space station, the so-called The portal in a circular orbit called a almost rectilinear halo orbit. This station will serve as an outpost where Artemis crews will transfer from the Orion capsule to the lander, a modified SpaceX Starship. For Artemis 3, however, Orion will rendezvous in lunar orbit directly with a lander.

After Artemis 1 completes one and a half orbits in DRO, it returns to Earth for a landing in the Pacific Ocean on October 11 (assuming the mission runs on schedule with a Saturday launch). This is a critical part of the mission – to test the heat shield before humans fly on Artemis 2. Orion will arrive faster than any crewed spacecraft before, at up to 25,000 mph (40,000 km/h) and about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2800 degrees Celsius). The heat shield should work.

Artemis 1 will use the Moon’s gravity to drop it into a distant retrograde orbit (DRO), an extremely stable orbit. NASA initially studied the DRO for the Asteroid Redirect Mission, a proposed mission that would capture an asteroid and place it in the DRO for easy access for exploration. (Credit: NASA)

But why are we going back to the moon anyway? We’ve been there, haven’t we?

Our understanding of the Moon today is vastly different than it was during the Apollo era. Once thought to be dry, scientists have discovered that the moon has vast deposits of water ice, especially at the south pole, near which Artemis 3 is supposed to land. There, water ice has accumulated over billions of years from various sources, kept stable in a constant shaded regions (PSR). Yet on the rim of some craters in the polar region, the sun shines almost constantly. It is the perfect combination of energy for solar panels and water for drinking, oxygen production and rocket fuel production. In 2024, NASA will send a rover called VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) to this region to survey what is sure to be a dramatic landscape.

Finding water on the moon has the potential to be a game changer. NASA’s current mantra for manned exploration is “Moon to Mars.” Using the moon’s water ice, NASA hopes to learn how to “live off land” in an environment with lots of radiation, huge temperature differences, nasty dust and more — a training ground for life on Mars.

Some recommend that astronauts settle in lunar lava pits, protected from many of these dangers. It would be a high-tech return to the cave roots of our species as we plan forays into the Red Planet, perhaps fueled by lunar ice turned into rocket fuel.

But NASA’s goals aren’t just settlement—they’re scientific, too. The moon’s water holds clues to our solar system’s ancient past, and the surface offers places for special kinds of work. It’s the far side perfect for radio astronomy. Shielded from Earth, it’s very, very quiet there.

NASA is not alone in this moon tide. Private companies send robotic missions. And Russia and China are cooperating on plans for a base and space station on the moon. China is moving forward after demonstrating real skill in developing a serious space exploration program. It’s not quite the Cold War, but it got Washington’s attention.

How do we do this?

With rockets, of course!

But seriously, NASA partners with other countries and agencies, most notably ESA, whose service module for Orion serves as a power and support vehicle for the spacecraft. NASA has touted its global partnerships, and multiple countries have signed the Artemis Accords, promising cooperation and careful management of the Moon and the space environment.

Not everyone thinks it’s enough to prevent overexploitation, unnecessary scars of an ancient world, or even conflicts and hostilities with other players. Much political and legal deliberation is underway.

Advocates believe that Artemis could be our first baby steps—if not giant leaps—in becoming a multiplanetary species, while benefiting our homeworld through innovation and perhaps even showing us more cooperative ways of living together.

How can I follow the quest?

This is the easiest question of all. Your best bet is NASA TV, which will begin coverage a few hours before the first launch window. You can find it at NASA website and on YouTube. NASA will also cover the first burn of Orion’s exit trajectory later tonight; A full schedule of scheduled programming is included NASA website.

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