In 2022, the Artemis I mission officially launched the Artemis programme, NASA's second-largest endeavour after the ISS. Its initial goal is to put another human on the lunar surface by 2025. The mission is a historic one, as no mission since the Apollo programme had ever considered such a journey until now. Let’s dig deeper into the details!
The goal of the Artemis programme
Artemis is not the first lunar programme developed by mankind. The Apollo programme of the 1960s was the pioneer in this field, named after Apollo, the god of the Moon and Atremis’ twin brother. Now it is the second attempt to conquer our celestial companion. Although the two missions bear the names of a twin pair, there are not many similarities between the two. While the Apollo programme was designed to put a man on the Moon, the Artemis programme is part of a much more complex plan.
In fact, the final plan is to get humans to Mars in the second half of the 2030s. To make a trip to Mars possible, several conditions must be met. One of them is that humans must have experience in long-duration space missions in the most challenging environments one can possibly imagine. The conquest of the Moon is therefore a great training ground, a very important building block on the road to Mars. The International Space Station (ISS) will be joined by a lunar orbiting station, the Lunar Gateway, which will be the result of a major international collaboration.
The Orion spacecraft is the main vehicle of the programme and could be capable of sustained or extended stays. It will be launched into space by a booster rocket, the SLS (Space Launch System). Its first stage is an external fuel tank, similar to that used for space shuttles, with 4 upgraded RS25 engines at the bottom and solid propellant boosters on either side, also taken and reimagined from the space shuttle programme. The solar-powered spacecraft can accommodate up to 5 people.
The mission will also require a habitation unit to be used as a base for the astronauts. The shuttle will be placed in orbit around the Moon before the mission, and interestingly, they are designed to be reusable for future missions.
The success of Artemis I
During the 15-day space mission in 2022, the main systems of the Orion spacecraft were tested. The aim was to see how the US-built command module and the European-built service module would perform in a live situation. The test was a success, and the images of the Earth, the Moon and the spacecraft itself were stunning.
The first flight of the Artemis programme started on 16 November, with the Orion space capsule being launched on top of an SLS rocket. It spent 25.5 days in space, covering 1.3 million kilometres and orbiting the Moon twice. It is a record-breaking 432,000 kilometres, making it the furthest spacecraft capable of carrying humans to return to Earth. The mission was a success: the capsule landed in the Pacific Ocean on the 11th of December.
The first Artemis mission was launched in 2022. The next milestone is expected to be Artemis II in 2024, which will carry a crew of three astronauts from the US and one from Canada. The mission will aim to test the spacecraft in orbit around the Moon in a live crewed environment.
Landing is not yet a requirement for this mission, it will only be possible in Artemis III, when humans will be able to set foot on the Moon again. This is expected to take place in 2025 when 2 US astronauts (a man and a woman) will land on the Moon's South Pole in the SpaceX Starship lander.
The Moon mission is a key strategic element in the exploration and conquest of space. Thanks to the Artemis programme, humans could once again set foot on the surface of the Moon and, within a decade, on Mars. Will it be easy?