Not since 1972 has a human set foot on the Moon, but NASA is aiming to change that through its ambitious Artemis program. The lunar missions kicked off on November 16, 2022 with Artemis 1, and now the space agency is preparing its astronauts for bigger and bolder missions to the Moon.
On December 14, 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt said goodbye to the Moon. As they drifted toward Earth, it likely never occurred to them that humans wouldn’t return to the lunar surface for another half-century or more. But this is precisely where we find ourselves today, with the Apollo missions firmly in the history books.
What is NASA’s Artemis project?
Artemis is the program that finally promises to rekindle lunar exploration, as NASA seeks to land a woman and man on the Moon by no earlier than 2026. But there’s a lot more to Artemis than just plopping two people onto the lunar surface. This time, NASA plans to build a sustainable presence on and around the Moon, and to use the program as a stepping stone to the next giant leap: a crewed mission to Mars.
Announced in 2017, Artemis will “enable human expansion across the solar system,” according to NASA’s Artemis Plan. The Artemis era could involve as many as 11 lunar missions (some crewed and some uncrewed), of which six are currently under development (Artemis 2 to 7)
Long-term goals include the construction of the Lunar Gateway (the first space station in orbit around the Moon) and the installation of Artemis Base Camp (a surface station). Both commercial and international partners will be involved, the latter of which will include the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
Why did NASA choose the name Artemis?
Artemis is the Greek goddess of the Moon and the hunt and the twin sister of Apollo, so it’s a nice call-back to the original crewed lunar missions. In fairness, however, Artemis is a superior name choice for a lunar mission, as Apollo is the Greek god of the Sun. The new name, it could be argued, is a timely correction to a potentially sexist oversight.
Why is NASA going back to the Moon?
Through NASA, the United States is aiming to lead an “innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities,” according to a Space Policy Directive signed on December 11, 2017. “Beginning with missions beyond low-Earth orbit, the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations,” the White House memorandum continues.
Or more simply, the return to our natural satellite is about fostering new scientific discoveries, investigating potential economic benefits, and inspiring a “new generation of explorers,” according to NASA.
Indeed, there’s still lots to learn about the Moon, such as the nature of its origin and its geochemical composition. Importantly, Artemis astronauts are set to explore the Moon’s south polar regions in search of water ice—a key enabler of a sustainable human presence there. Artemis could also carve a path to the commercialization of the Moon, whether it be space tourism or the mining of resources such as rare-earth elements and helium-3.
The part about Artemis being a stepping stone to Mars is also crucial. The technologies and learnings accrued over the course of these missions should make it possible for NASA and its partners to eventually launch a crewed mission to the Red Planet.
What technologies are needed for Artemis?
NASA and its partners, both private and public, are in the midst of developing a slew of new technologies. The Orion spacecraft that will take astronauts to the Moon and back is already developed, as is NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket, which successfully performed its maiden flight during Artemis 1. But practically everything else still needs to be built.
Other key technologies include three different lunar landers (two of which are to be provided by SpaceX), a lunar spacesuit known as xEMU (a prototype of which was unveiled by private partner Axiom Space on March 15, 2023), an unpressurized lunar rover, the aforementioned Lunar Gateway (which itself will involve multiple elements), and a host of exploration ground systems.
How much will Artemis cost?
A lot. An Inspector General audit from November 15, 2021 found that $40 billion has already been spent on Artemis and that NASA can be expected to spend a total of $93 billion by the end of 2025. Alarmingly, the same report claimed that the first four launches of SLS/Orion will cost an estimated $4.1 billion apiece. Should NASA not be able to reduce this cost, the space agency “will face significant challenges to sustaining its Artemis program in its current configuration,” the Inspector General warned.
Is SpaceX a part of Artemis?
Yes, SpaceX is playing a key role in Artemis. In April 2021, the Elon Musk-led company signed a $2.89 billion contract with NASA to provide a lunar lander for the missions. A second SpaceX contract was awarded in November 2022 for the company to build a second lunar lander, but with upgrades. The company is intending to leverage its upcoming Starship rocket for the platform, which will require the gigantic rocket to perform a vertical landing on the lunar surface.
Prior to this, the Starship lander will have to re-fuel in low Earth orbit and link up with Orion to perform the astronaut transfer in lunar orbit. The required technological complexity seems daunting, and we eagerly wait to see if the SpaceX team can pull it off. That said, NASA is seeking a second lunar lander from a yet-to-be determined commercial provider not named SpaceX.
Is Blue Origin a part of Artemis?
Yes, Blue Origin is involved in NASA’s Artemis program. One significant contribution is through the “National Team,” led by Blue Origin. This team includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper, and was formed to develop a human landing system for the Artemis program, dubbed Blue Moon.
Has NASA chosen astronauts for the Artemis missions?
NASA has said that all active NASA astronauts are eligible to take part in the lunar program. On April 3, 2023, NASA announced the names of the four astronauts who will take part in Artemis 2, namely NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Christina Koch, and Reid Wiseman, and Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Jeremy Hansen.
The names of the four Artemis 3 astronauts have not yet been announced and likely won’t be until the conclusion of Artemis 2.
When did Artemis 1 launch?
The inaugural launch of NASA’s Space Launch System occurred on November 16 at 1:47 a.m ET. NASA rolled the rocket back to Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on November 4, and had been planning to launch the rocket on November 14, but a tropical storm forced a two-day delay. Some caulk-like material came loose as a result of the storm, but mission managers concluded that it wouldn’t jeopardize the launch.
For this mission, an uncrewed Orion spacecraft traveled to the Moon and returned to Earth some three-and-a-half weeks later, without performing a lunar landing. Artemis 1 served to test the fledgling rocket and Orion capsule, setting the stage for the crewed Artemis 2 mission.
Artemis 1 saw the deployment of 10 low-cost cubesats and included a trio of manikins designed to measure vibrations and space radiation, along with a vest for protecting astronauts against ionizing radiation. The mission was deemed a big success despite some minor problems, including unexpected blackout periods and unusual wear and tear on Orion’s heat shield.
Related article: 7 Things We Learned From NASA’s Wildly Successful Artemis 1 Mission
NASA attempted to launch Artemis 1 on two prior occasions, both resulting in a scrub. The first scrub on August 29 was cancelled after a faulty sensor erroneously indicated that an RS-25 engine had not reached the target ultra-cold temperature required at launch, while the second scrub on September 3 was the result of an unmanageable hydrogen leak. A hydrogen leak was detected during the first launch attempt, but engineers were successful in resolving the problem.
Following a successful cryogenic tanking test on September 22, NASA targeted September 27 for the third SLS launch attempt. The appearance of Hurricane Ian forced a postponement, sending the megarocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for shelter.
When is the Artemis 2 launch?
Artemis 2, in which an Orion capsule complete with a human crew will travel to the Moon and back without landing, is currently scheduled to happen no earlier than September 2025. It was previously scheduled for November 2024, but ongoing issues with Orion’s heat shield, among other technical issues, necessitated the delay.
The 10-day mission will be very similar to Artemis 1, save for the presence of the four-person crew consisting of NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman (commander), Christina Koch (mission specialist), and Victor (pilot) Glover, and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jeremy Hansen (mission specialist).
When is the Artemis 3 launch?
Artemis 3 is currently targeted for no earlier than late 2026. In March 2022, NASA’s inspector general said the launch probably won’t happen until 2026 at the earliest on account of the delayed development of the lunar spacesuit—a prognostication that was affirmed in January 2024, when NASA announced the delay (Artemis 2 was originally supposed to launch in late 2025). Development delays with SpaceX’s Starship also contributed to the delay.
The plan is to land a man and woman near the Moon’s south polar region, where they will spend nearly a full week exploring the lunar surface. The two remaining crew members will stay aboard Orion. Should all go as planned, an unpressurized rover and other equipment will be placed on the surface in advance of the mission. At least four spacewalks are planned, with a priority placed on the search for water ice. NASA has also said it will choose a person of color for the moonwalks.
As part of the Artemis program in general, NASA expects to launch the first two Gateway elements in 2025: the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO). A SpaceX Falcon Heavy will perform the lifting duties, but an exact date for launch has not yet been announced.
When is the Artemis 4 launch?
The fourth Artemis mission is currently planned for September 2028. Four astronauts will launch to the Lunar Gateway, where they will continue to build-out the lunar outpost. The current plan is to send a European Space Agency astronaut to Gateway and use SpaceX’s second human landing system to deliver the two-person crew to the surface. As before, SLS will perform the launching duties and Orion will serve as the spacecraft.
The mission will deliver the I-Hab habitat module to Gateway, which at that point will consist of the initial space station elements, namely the Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost. I-Hab, a joint project of ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), will eventually serve as the main habitat for astronauts when staying on board Gateway. A lunar landing was not expected for this mission, but NASA changed its mind in October 2022, saying astronauts will be sent down to the surface during Artemis 4.
When is the Artemis 5 launch?
Artemis 5 should launch in September 2029. The plan is to send four astronauts to Gateway and then deploy two crew members to the lunar surface with a yet-to-be announced lunar lander. The astronauts will once again explore the south polar region of the Moon. For this mission, the plan is to equip the astronauts with a lunar terrain vehicle, otherwise known as a Moon buggy.
The mission will also seek to deliver ESA’s ESPRIT (European System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications) to Gateway. ESPIRIT “will supply enhanced communications, refuelling and a window somewhat like the European-built Cupola observatory on the International Space Station,” according to ESA.
When is the Artemis 6 launch?
NASA expects to launch Artemis 6 in September 2030. A key goal of this mission will be to deliver an airlock to Gateway. A crewed lunar landing is also anticipated, but the specific lunar lander has not yet been chosen.
When is the Artemis 7 launch?
Artemis 7 is currently planned for September 2031. The specific lunar lander for this mission has not yet been announced, but the mission could involve the first-ever pressurized rover. By this point, sustained crewed operations on Gateway should begin in earnest.
What will happen next?
Artemis missions 8 through 11 are still in the proposal stage, so we’re not entirely certain as to when they’ll launch or what will be involved.
These late Artemis missions will expand in both scope and ambition and will likely see the installation of a lunar habitats, a pressurized mobile home, among other elements designed to enable humanity’s sustained presence on the Moon. By this stage, lunar adventures could last as long as 45 days.
Should the Artemis program unfold as expected, NASA can then plan for a crewed trip to Mars. The current expectation is for a crew to land on the Red Planet in the late 2030s or early 2040s. A crewed expedition to Mars and back, without a landing, could happen in 2033 to take advantage of an ideal orbital alignment between Mars and Earth.
And from there, the rest of solar system awaits. But it all starts with Artemis.
This article was originally published on May 14, 2022.