Early on the morning of 14th December 1972, Eugene Cernan climbed back into the Apollo 17 capsule and concluded the last EVA (spacewalk) of the Apollo program. With the 50th anniversary of this event approaching in December, Cernan still holds the record for the last human to walk on the Moon. This is all about to change with the upcoming Artemis mission which aims to return humans to the Moon.
The Artemis program as we know it today originated in 2017 under the Trump administration but in reality started a lot earlier. It makes use of technology and vehicles that have been in development since as far back as 2004. During the early 2000s NASA began to plan to retire the space shuttle and began the development of a replacement launch capability. Initially this came in the form of the Constellation program which consisted of the Aries I and V rockets, and Orion crew vehicle. The goal of this was to have access to low earth orbit, return to the Moon by 2020 and eventually go to Mars.
By the late 2000s it became clear that the Constellation program was falling very far behind and did not have the necessary funding. In 2010, Obama’s administration cancelled the Constellation program except for the Orion crew vehicle. In its place they provided funding for a new super heavy lift vehicle called the Space Launch System (SLS) while funding was also increased for the private sector to develop commercial launch capability to low earth orbit. The new date for a moon landing was set to 2028.
The SLS was due to be completed by 2016 but again fell behind schedule. In 2017 under the Trump administration, Artemis as we know it today was announced. The ambition was to accelerate the USA’s return to the Moon by 4 years to 2024, using the SLS and Orion spacecrafts. The name of the program was announced by Jim Bridenstine, the then NASA administrator in 2019. Artemis is both the twin sister of Apollo and the goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology.
The ultimate goal of Artemis is to return humans to the Moon, including the first female and the first person of colour to walk on the Moon. The program also aims to create a long term presence on the surface which will pave the way for missions to Mars in the future. The main components in this are the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion crew capsule, the Lunar Gateway and the Starship Human Landing system (HLS).
The SLS is the huge launch vehicle that will travel to the Moon. It will be the most powerful rocket ever built. It will launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and can be configured in various different ways depending on whether it is carrying crew, cargo or both. While the rocket is exciting and will be most of the most powerful ever when launched, it is going to cost significantly more than the estimated launch cost of a Space X Starship, which is under development and that could throw the whole viability of the SLS into question.
The first of the Artemis missions is called Artemis 1 and is due to launch this year. This is the first launch of the SLS and Orion spacecraft. It will see the uncrewed Orion spacecraft travel to the Moon and back to check that everything works as expected. At the moment NASA are working through some final issues that were uncovered during a “wet dress rehearsal” earlier in the year. Once these are resolved we should see the rocket back on the launchpad during the summer – (as I write this, the rocket is being moved back to the launchpad).
Once Artemis 1 has returned safely and assuming everything goes to plan, NASA will then move onto Artemis 2 which will see the first crewed flight of the SLS and Orion. This mission will also go to the Moon and will pass 8889 km beyond the Moon, the farthest humans will have ever gone from Earth. It will then return to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean about 8 to 10 days after leaving.
Artemis 3 is planned to be the first human lunar landing since Apollo 17 in 1972. It is expected Artemis 3 will carry 4 astronauts to the Moon but only two of them will make the trip to the surface while the other two orbit above. The astronauts will travel down to the lunar surface using the Starship human landing system which is still in development. Once there, they will likely spend about a week exploring the surface undertaking 4 EVAs (Moon walks). The exact landing site won’t be chosen until close to launch as it will depend on launch date due to the lighting conditions on the surface.
Once finished exploring the surface, the Starship HLS will take the astronauts back to lunar orbit to meet the Orion crew capsule which will return them to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean just like the Apollo astronauts.
If all goes to plan, we should see humans back on the Moon by 2025 but of course that date was already pushed back from 2024 so delays are probably to be expected. Following on from the Artemis 3, we can expect to see the launch of the lunar gateway which will act as a staging post for further missions to the surface eventually allowing the construction of a permanent base on the surface. After this the next step will be a journey on to Mars but at the moment this seems quite a bit away.