NASA’s Artemis 1 mission is about to take a key step towards getting humans back to the Moon after a half-century hiatus. The mission, slated for launch Monday, August 29, 2022, is a shakedown — uncrewed — cruise for NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion Crew capsule.
The spacecraft must go to the Moon, deploy a few small satellites, and then settle into orbit. NASA aims to train in the use of the spacecraft, test the conditions crews will encounter on and around the Moon, and assure everyone that the spacecraft and all occupants can return to Earth safely.
The Conversation asked Jack Burns, professor and space scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and former member of NASA’s Presidential Transition Team, to describe the mission, explain what the Artemis program promises to do for space exploration and to reflect on how the space program has changed in the half-century since man last set foot on the lunar surface.
How is Artemis 1 different from other regularly launched rockets?
Artemis 1 will be the first flight of the new space launch system. It is a “heavy” vehicle, as NASA calls it. It will be the most powerful rocket engine ever sent into space, even more powerful than Apollo’s Saturn V system that took astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s.
It is a new type of rocket system, as it has both a combination of liquid oxygen and hydrogen main engines and two strapped solid rocket boosters derived from the Space Shuttle. It’s really a hybrid between the Space Shuttle and Apollo’s Saturn V rocket.
The tests are very important, because the Orion Crew Capsule will be the subject of a real training. He will be in the space environment of the Moon, a high radiation environment, for a month. And, very importantly, it will test the heat shield, which protects the capsule and its occupants, as it returns to Earth at 25,000 miles per hour. This will be the fastest capsule re-entry since Apollo, so it is very important that the heat shield works well.
This mission will also embark a series of small satellites which will be placed in orbit around the Moon. These will do useful precursor science, ranging from further research into permanently shadowed craters where scientists think there is water to simply making more measurements of the radiation environment, seeing what will be the effects on humans for long term exposure.
What is the goal of the Artemis project? What happens in the series of launches?
The mission is a first step towards Artemis 3, which will lead to the first human missions to the Moon in the 21st century and the first since 1972. Artemis 1 is an uncrewed test flight.
Artemis 2, slated for launch a few years later, will have astronauts on board. It will also be an orbital mission, much like Apollo 8, which circled the Moon and returned home. Astronauts will spend more time in orbit around the Moon and test it all out with a human crew.
And, finally, it will lead to a journey to the surface of the Moon in which Artemis 3 – in the middle of the decade – will meet the SpaceX Starship and the transfer crew. Orion will remain in orbit and the lunar ship will take astronauts to the surface. They will go to the south pole of the Moon to observe an area that scientists have not yet explored to study water ice there.
Artemis recalls Apollo. What has changed in half a century?
The Apollo Reason that Kennedy originally envisioned was to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon. The administration didn’t particularly care about space travel or the moon itself, but it represented a bold goal that would clearly put America at the forefront in terms of space and technology.
The downside of doing this is the old adage “You live by the sword, you die by the sword”. When the United States landed on the moon, the game was pretty much over. We beat the Russians. So we put up flags and did science experiments. But fairly soon after Apollo 11, after a few more missions, Richard Nixon canceled the program because the political goals had been achieved.
So, fast forward 50 years. It’s a very different environment. We’re not doing this to beat the Russians or the Chinese or anyone else, but to begin sustainable exploration beyond Earth’s orbit.
The Artemis program is guided by a number of different objectives. This includes in-situ resource utilization, which means using available resources like water ice and lunar soil to produce food, fuel, and building materials.
The program is also helping to establish a lunar and space economy, starting with entrepreneurs, as SpaceX is fully part of this first mission to the surface of the Moon. NASA does not own the Starship but buys seats to allow astronauts to go to the surface. SpaceX will then use the Starship for other purposes – to transport other payloads, private astronauts and astronauts from other countries.
Fifty years of technological development means that going to the Moon is now much cheaper and more technologically feasible, and much more sophisticated experiences are possible when just understanding computer technology. These 50 years of technological advances have completely changed the game. Almost anyone with the financial resources can send spacecraft to the moon now, but not necessarily with humans.
NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services uses private companies to build uncrewed landers to go to the Moon. My colleagues and I have a radio telescope going to the Moon on one of the landers in January. This simply would not have been possible even 10 years ago.
What other changes does Artemis have in store?
The administration said that on this first crewed flight, on Artemis 3, there will be at least one woman and most likely one person of color. They can be identical. There may be several.
I can’t wait to see more of that diversity, because today’s young kids watching NASA can say, “Hey, there’s an astronaut who looks just like me.” I can do it. I can be part of the space program.
Jack Burns, professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences, University of Colorado Boulder
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.