The Artemis 1 mission was on full display in the last week with a significant gravitational skirting of the moon by the Orion module spacecraft. This journey is the beginning of a NASA-led effort to return humankind to the moon. The excitement of this new space program is reminiscent of the Apollo program in the 1960s and early 1970s. This space mission bridges generations and cultures.
The gravity slingshot of Orion takes it about 100 km from the surface of the moon, before being propelled to a lunar orbit about 70,000 km away. The spacecraft will be in that orbit for approximately six days to collect data and allow mission controllers to assess the performance of the spacecraft.
Dramatic pictures of an “Earthrise” taken by Orion were reminiscent of the famous Christmas Eve broadcast from Apollo 8 in 1968, when three astronauts beamed home live black-and-white footage of the moon during the first lunar orbit by humans.
More specifically, Orion is the first spacecraft in history capable of carrying humans on long-duration missions in deep space. According to research, NASA’s Space Launch System is a rocket capable of launching humans, habitats and support systems directly into deep space. It is designed to be both powerful and flexible, allowing crewed, cargo or science missions. The SLS launch was flawless in performance after an earlier cancellation of Artemis’ launch due to a technical glitch.
This first Artemis mission is uncrewed and all systems are being pushed to their limits for testing purposes, which is vital for ensuring that crew members in future missions aboard the Orion capsule are safe, especially with regard to the reentry heat shield test. This function is the role of the European Service Module. This module, which is operated by the European Space Agency, serves as the Orion spacecraft’s main propulsion system, while also providing orbital maneuvering and positioning control. Even before Artemis’ launch, the European Service Module took on various tasks, such as cooling the spacecraft systems on the launch pad. If this mission is successful, Artemis 2, currently slated to fly no earlier than 2024, will be the biggest test of returning humans to a lunar environment.
The commercial and legal aspects of Artemis space travel are also entering the picture — a topic that did not exist during the Apollo missions. A few months ago, NASA released updated guidance on its “Moon to Mars” goals and objectives. The idea is to create an interoperable global lunar utilization infrastructure, where US industry and international partners can maintain a continuous robotic and human presence on the lunar surface. The object is to create a robust lunar economy without NASA as the sole user, while accomplishing science objectives and testing for moving forward to Mars missions. The moon is the launch pad to Mars.
Importantly, the planning cycle during the evolution of the Artemis mission includes what is called the Gateway. This will be an outpost orbiting the Moon and providing vital support for a sustainable and long-term human return to the lunar surface. The Gateway will have components from US companies and international partners. It will provide access to more of the lunar surface than ever before, with living quarters for astronauts, a lab for science and research, ports for visiting spacecraft, and more.
Associated with this, the Human Landing System will carry astronauts to the lunar surface and return them back to lunar orbit when their expedition is complete. Various types of reusable rocket systems are being discussed and designed by American and partner contractors to be paired with NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services.
Thus, Artemis and the Gateway are key segments of the development of Moon to Mars space travel. Those beautiful pictures were only a brief appetizer of what is in store for those who pursue a career in the space sciences. Partner countries who signed the Artemis Accords in 2020 will be part of this enduring operation, including Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the UAE and the UK.
Before its return to Earth, Orion will do another gravity bounce to accelerate its return. The Orion astronaut capsule will then separate from the European Service Module to enter Earth’s atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. The module will not return with Orion but will burn up in a controlled manner in the Earth’s atmosphere. The entire mission is entertaining, scientific and inspiring.
The Artemis program inspires the imagination and provides a much-needed boost for schoolchildren’s efforts to understand the science and excitement of travel to the moon and then to Mars. Our societies need to avoid a future of war, disease and dramatic climate change, and the biggest driver for helping humankind is boosting hope through space travel.