NASA is heading back to the moon, but this time, instead of taking one step, they’re hoping for a much longer stay.
It’s been 50 years since Neil Armstrong took that fateful step pronouncing those 10 words that changed the history of spaceflight: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
But since the final Apollo mission in 1972, there’s been a hold on lunar exploration until recently.
In 2019, NASA announced its plans to return to the moon with the exciting news of sending the first woman and man to the Moon’s south pole by 2024. The lunar program also got a new moniker: Artemis after the Greek goddess of the Moon and, fittingly, Apollo’s twin sister Reaching the moon by 2024 is of course an idealized timeline and is heavily dependent on funding. The new Artemis mission is estimated to cost twenty to thirty billion dollars over the next five years. To fast track the effort, the White House has requested an additional one point six billion but that’s yet to be confirmed.
Cost aside, with the successful test of the Orion capsule in early July, NASA may just be one step closer to returning to the Moon. The Orion spacecraft is built to carry crew members beyond low-Earth orbit.
It’s composed of three major parts: a launch abort system or LAS, which would separate the spacecraft from the rocket if an accident were to occur during launch; a crew module, where astronauts would live and work; and a service module, which is essential to the crew as it provides life support and energy, in addition to the spacecraft’s propulsion system.
Ensuring the functionality of each of these components is crucial for the survival of the astronauts. And on July 2, 2019, the Orion test spacecraft passed a full stress test to ensure its launch abort system was able to outrun a speeding rocket and pull the crew module to safety.
But in order to get to deep space, the Orion capsule will need some help. And this is where it’s rocket comes in. The Orion capsule will be hitching a ride on the Space Launch System or SLS, a rocket that is currently being built.
The SLS is designed to carry Orion into deep space, with missions to the Moon and Mars.
The SLS will have multiple configurations for each of its missions. Its first will be the Block 1, designed for an uncrewed mission beyond the moon. A subsequent planned configuration is the Block 1B vehicle, which will be a manned cargo mission, and next is the Block 2 crew, expected to be NASA’s workhorse, shuttling cargo to the Moon, Mars, and other deep space missions.
And it’s with the Artemis 1 mission that the world’s most powerful rocket will take its first test, making it the first integrative flight of Orion and the SLS. Standing at roughly 98 meters and weighing around 2,600 metric tons, the SLS Block 1 will generate 39,144 kilonewtons of thrust at liftoff.
That’s about 15 percent more power than the Saturn V rocket.
It will be able to carry more than 26 metric tons of cargo to orbits beyond the Moon, with later upgrades hoping to shuttle at least 45 metric tons. Once the SLS is completed, NASA says it will be the only rocket with the power necessary to carry astronauts and payloads beyond Earth’s orbit and into deep space.
Now that we have the capsule and the rocket covered, the last piece of the puzzle is the deep space outpost called the Gateway, and it’s a key element to landing astronauts on the lunar surface. Located roughly 400,000 km away from Earth, the Gateway will be a small space station that will orbit the Moon, allowing for the Orion spacecraft to dock, where it will serve as a base for astronauts to conduct scientific experiments, expeditions, and get accustomed to living in deep space.
Crew members will visit the Gateway at least once a year for up to three months at a time and unlike the International Space Station which is the size of a six bedroom house, the Gateway will only be the size of a small studio apartment. In order to visit the lunar surface, astronauts would take a reusable lunar landing system down to the surface to explore and NASA is looking to the commercial sector to fulfill this need. The system would need to include elements for descent, ascent, transfer, refueling, and a surface suit.
As for the construction of the gateway, plans are already underway. NASA hopes to send up large portions of the spaceship for automatic assembly on roughly six rocket launches, which is a steal considering that it took 34 launches to build the ISS.
So you’re probably wondering, when Artemis will take flight? While the Gateway is expected to be completed in 2024, the unmanned test mission, known as Artemis 1, is expected to launch before 2021 and should last about three weeks. The first manned mission, Artemis 2 will launch in 2022, orbiting our lunar neighbor before returning to Earth. But it’s in 2024 that NASA will finally revisit the lunar surface in over 50 years. In fact, Artemis 3 will deliver pioneering astronauts to the Moon’s South Pole for the very first time.
But the Artemis program isn’t just important for the lunar exploration. Preparing astronauts for life on the Gateway will allow for more studies on how the human body responds to life in deep space and provide more opportunities for exploration. Long-term, the Artemis program hopes to create a lunar colony by 2028, an essential pit-stop for getting a manned mission to Mars.