NASA will embark on another journey on August 29, as the Artemis 1 mission will help return humans to the moon after a half-century hiatus. The spacecraft will travel to the moon and deploy some small satellites before settling into orbit.
The US-based agency wants to practice operating the spacecraft, test the conditions crews will experience on and around the moon, and assure everyone that the spacecraft and any occupants can return to Earth safely.
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The Conversation recently spoke to Jack Burns, a professor and space scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and former member of the Presidential Transition Team for NASA about the mission. He was asked to 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 humans last set foot on the lunar surface.
How does Artemis 1 differ from the other missiles that are launched routinely?
Artemis 1 will be the first flight of the new Space Launch System. This is a “heavy lift” vehicle, as NASA calls it. It will be the most powerful rocket engine ever flown to 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 a combination of liquid oxygen and hydrogen main engines as well as two solid rocket boosters derived from the space shuttle. It’s really a hybrid between the space shuttle and Apollo’s Saturn V rocket.
Testing is very important, because the Orion Crew Capsule is going to get a real workout. It will be in the moon’s space environment for a month, an environment with a lot of radiation. And, most importantly, it will test the heat shield that protects the capsule and its occupants as it returns to Earth at 25,000 miles per hour. This will be the fastest return of the capsule since Apollo, so it is very important that the heat shield functions properly.
This mission will also carry a series of small satellites that will be placed in orbit around the moon. Those will provide useful precursor science, everything from looking further into the permanently shadowed craters where scientists believe there is water to simply taking more measurements of the radiation environment, seeing what the effects on humans will be with prolonged exposure.
What is the aim of the Artemis 1 project?
The mission is a first step towards Artemis 3, which will result in the first human missions to the Moon in the 21st century and the first since 1972. Artemis 1 is an unmanned test flight.
Artemis 2, which is scheduled to launch a few years later, will have astronauts on board. It will also be an orbital mission, much like Apollo 8, orbiting the moon and returning home. The astronauts will orbit the moon for an extended period of time, testing everything with a human crew.
And finally, that will lead to a journey to the surface of the moon where Artemis 3 will rendezvous with the SpaceX Starship and transfer the crew “somewhere in the middle of the decade.” Orion will remain in orbit and the lunar starship will bring the astronauts to the surface. They’re going to the moon’s south pole to look at an area scientists haven’t explored before to investigate the water ice there.
Artemis is reminiscent of Apollo. What has changed in the past half century?
The reason for Apollo that Kennedy initially envisioned was to defeat the Soviet Union to the moon. The government didn’t really care about space travel, or the moon itself, but it represented a bold goal that would clearly put America first in terms of space and technology.
The downside of this is the old saying, “You live by the sword, you die by the sword.” When the US landed on the moon, it was basically game over. We defeated the Russians. So we put up some flags and did some science experiments. But soon after Apollo 11, within a few more missions, Richard Nixon canceled the program because its political objectives had been achieved.
So fast forward 50 years. This is a very different environment. We’re not doing this to beat the Russians or the Chinese or anyone, but to start a sustained exploration beyond Earth’s orbit.
The Artemis program is driven by a number of different goals. It includes in-situ resource use, meaning resources such as water ice and lunar soil are used to produce food, fuel, and building materials.
The program also helps build a lunar and space economy, starting with entrepreneurs, as SpaceX is a big part of this first mission to the surface of the moon. NASA does not own the spaceship, but buys seats to allow astronauts to go to the surface. SpaceX will then use the spacecraft for other purposes “to carry other payloads, private astronauts and astronauts from other countries”.
Fifty years of technological development means that going to the moon is now much less expensive and technologically more feasible, and much more sophisticated experiments are possible when you consider computer technology. Those 50 years of technological advancements have been a complete game-changer. Almost anyone with the financial means can now send spacecraft to the moon, although not necessarily with humans.
NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services is contracting private companies to build unmanned landers to go to the moon. My colleagues and I have a radio telescope that will go to the moon on one of the landers in January. That wouldn’t have been possible even 10 years ago.
What other changes does Artemis have in store?
The government has said that on that first manned flight, on Artemis 3, there will be at least one woman and most likely a person of color. They can be one and the same. There could be several.
I look forward to seeing more of that diversity because young kids watching NASA these days can say, “Hey, there’s an astronaut who looks like me.”
(with PTI inputs)