Nearly 50 years after the final Apollo mission visited the lunar surface, NASA has launched a program that aims to put people back to the moon on the surface of Mars and other uncharted lunar regions: It all starts with rocket Artemis I.
It is no accident that the Artemis program is named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister. By launching crewed flights to the moon, Artemis will continue the illustrious Apollo program’s work that ended in 1972, but in a different way.
The Artemis program aims to send diverse astronaut crews to the moon and conduct the first-ever exploration of the mysterious lunar south pole. The ambitious project also intends to construct reusable technology that can enable human exploration of Mars and maybe beyond, as well as a sustained presence on the moon.
But without making one giant leap initially, none of this is feasible. Before people complete the trip in 2024 and 2025 aboard Artemis II and Artemis III, respectively, every new component that will enable future deep space exploration will be tested during the launch of rocket Artemis I on August 29.
The mission team anticipates the new Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft to launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on August 29 between 8:33 and 10:33 ET, with backup launch windows scheduled for September 2 and September 5.
The 42-day mission for Artemis I will begin with a launch from Earth. The Orion spacecraft will travel 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) beyond the moon during the trip, breaking the previous record established by Apollo 13 by 30,000 miles (48,000 kilometers). The crew of the Artemis II will go along a similar route in 2024.
According to NASA officials, it will travel the farthest of any spaceship made for people.
As NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted at a news conference earlier in August, legendary launchpad 39B has seen its share of giant rockets. It originally served as the base for the Saturn V rocket, which launched with 7.6 million pounds of thrust and took the Apollo missions to the moon. With 8.8 million pounds of power, the SLS rocket will launch from the launch pad.
“As we embark on the first Artemis test flight, we recall this agency’s storied past, but our eyes are focused not on the immediate future but out there,” Nelson said.
“It’s 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’ll develop the science and technology to send the first humans to Mars.”
A fresh wave of exploration
It takes a new ride to go back to the moon with the intention of going to Mars in the future.
The Space Launch System rocket, the most potent rocket in the world, was designed with lessons learnt from the Apollo and shuttle projects in mind. The spaceship will be propelled by the huge moon rocket roughly one thousand times farther than the International Space Station, which is now in low-Earth orbit. In order to escape Earth’s gravity and travel to the moon, the SLS rocket will accelerate Orion to a speed of 22,600 miles per hour (36,370 kilometers per hour).
“It’s the only rocket that’s capable of sending Orion and a crew and supplies into deep space on a single launch,” said John Honeycutt, Space Launch System program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
The Orion spacecraft, which is intended to transport a crew through the deep space and safely return the astronauts to Earth, is perched atop the rocket.
The spacecraft is equipped with a crew module, a service module, and a launch abort system that can rescue the crew and spacecraft in the event of a launch or ascent-related disaster. Orion’s course through space will put to the test its ability to stay in touch with Earth after passing the moon and shield its crew from radiation.
The European Service Module is located beneath Orion.
“It’s the power house side of the vehicle where it’s got the primary propulsion, power and life support resources we need for Artemis I,” said Howard Hu, Orion program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
According to Hu, the Orion spacecraft is equipped with gear and software that will provide future crews full visibility into what is occurring with their ship even while they are thousands of miles away from their home.
Testing the greatest heat shield ever created, Orion may face some of its toughest challenges.
When the spacecraft makes its way back to Earth in October, it will encounter temperatures half as hot as the surface of the sun and will crash into the top of the atmosphere at a speed of 32 times the speed of sound, or 25,000 miles per hour (40,200 kilometers per hour), according to Nelson.
At 32 Mach, Orion will return to Earth quicker and hotter than any other spaceship, according to Nelson. We were traveling at 25 Mach on the space shuttle, which is roughly 17,500 miles per hour (28,160 kilometers per hour). (The sound speed is Mach 1).
The heat shield has been put to the test here on Earth, but the only real test that simulations can’t quite match is coming back from space.
Re-entry will be a terrific opportunity to showcase our heat shield performance, ensure that the spacecraft returns safely, and of course, safeguard the crew on future missions, according to Hu.