Nearly 50 years after the last Apollo mission went to the surface of the Moon, NASA launched a program that promises to land humans in unexplored lunar regions and eventually on the surface of Mars – and it all starts with Artemis I.
It is no coincidence that the Artemis program is named after the twin sister of Apollo from Greek mythology. Artemis will continue where the famous Apollo program ended in 1972 by sending manned missions to the Moon, but in a new way.
The objectives of the Artemis program include the landing of various crews of astronauts on the Moon and the first exploration of the moon’s shadowed south pole. Ambitious efforts are also being made to secure a sustainable presence on the Moon and build reusable systems that could allow humans to explore Mars and possibly beyond.
But none of this is possible without the first big leap. When Artemis I launches on August 29, the uncrewed mission will test every new component that will make deep space exploration possible in the future before people take off on a journey in 2024 and 2025 aboard Artemis II and Artemis III, respectively.
The mission team expects the launch of the new Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft between 8:33 AM and 10:33 AM ET Aug. 29 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with back-up launch windows on Sept. 2 and 5.
After launching from Earth, Artemis I will embark on a 42-day mission. During the journey, the Orion spacecraft will cover a distance of 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) from the Moon – 30,000 miles (48,000 kilometers) further than the record set during Apollo 13. This path mimics the journey that the Artemis II crew will take in 2024.
According to NASA officials, this will be the farthest flight ever made by a spacecraft designed for people.
As NASA Administrator Bill Nelson pointed out at a press conference in early August, the historic Launch Pad 39B is no stranger to monster rockets. It was once home to the Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo missions to the moon and lifted off with 7.6 million pounds of thrust. The SLS missile will hit the pad with 8.8 million pounds of thrust.
“When we take off on the first test flight of Artemis, we recall the agency’s storied past, but our eyes are not on the near future, but on it,” Nelson said.
“This is 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 will advance the science and technology to send the first humans. to Mars.”
Next generation research
Returning to the Moon with an eye on a possible trip to Mars requires a new trip.
Lessons learned from the Apollo and Shuttle programs formed the basis for the design of the Space Launch System rocket, the most powerful rocket in the world. The Megamoon rocket will take the spacecraft nearly 1,000 times farther than the International Space Station in low Earth orbit. The SLS rocket will accelerate Orion to 22,600 miles per hour (36,370 kilometers per hour) to escape Earth’s gravity and reach the moon.
“This is the only rocket capable of sending the Orion, crew and supplies, into deep space in a single launch,” said John Honeycutt, space launch system program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
On top of the rocket is the Orion spacecraft, designed to carry crew into deep space and safely return astronauts to Earth.
The spacecraft has a crew module, a service module, and a launch abort system that is capable of guiding the spacecraft and its crew to safety in the event of any emergency that may arise during launch or recovery. Orion’s trajectory in space will test the ship’s ability to communicate with Earth beyond the moon and shield the crew from radiation.
Below Orion is the European Service Module.
“This is the power section of the vehicle where it has the main propulsion, power and life support resources that we need for the Artemis I,” said Howard Hu, Orion Program Manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The Orion spacecraft is equipped with hardware and software that will allow future crews to have a complete picture of what’s going on with their spacecraft when they’re thousands of miles from home, Hu said.
One of the biggest challenges for the Orion might be the heat shield, the largest ever built.
When the spacecraft returns to Earth in October, it will encounter temperatures half that of the Sun’s surface and reach Earth’s upper atmosphere at 25,000 miles per hour (40,200 kilometers per hour)—that’s 32 times the speed of sound. Nelson said. .
“Orion will return home faster and hotter than any spacecraft before it, at Mach 32,” Nelson said. “On the space shuttle, we were at Mach 25, which is about 17,500 miles per hour (28,160 kilometers per hour).” (Mach 1 is the speed of sound.)
The heat shield has been tested on Earth, but the return from space is the only real test that simulations cannot fully replicate.
“Atmospheric reentry will be a great way to demonstrate our thermal protection capabilities, make sure the spacecraft returns home safely, and of course for future missions, protecting the crew,” Hu said.
All objectives of the first flight of Artemis will demonstrate the capabilities required for Orion to take humans into deep space. The list includes overall safe flight, SLS rocket performance, heat shield testing, and recovery of the spacecraft after it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego.
Orion will not carry a crew on this initial mission, but it will be full of flight data, including sensors attached to some very important passengers. Three dummies will fly aboard the Artemis I to simulate what humans might experience, and their sensor data will show how much vibration they experienced, as well as the radiation exposure and the usefulness of their flight suits and radiation vests.
“Because the Artemis I is a test flight, the Artemis team is willing to take more risks,” said Mike Sarafin, NASA Artemis I mission leader. Taking those risks now could eliminate issues with real crew on board, he said.
But more than all the data and science the mission team will collect is the idea of resuming human space exploration, taking a big step forward from Apollo to Artemis.
“Artemis I shows that we can do great things that bring people together, things that benefit humanity — things like Apollo that inspire the world,” Nelson said. “And to all of us who look at the moon and dream of the day when humanity returns to the lunar surface: guys, we are here, we are returning, and this journey, our journey begins with Artemis I.”