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On December 14, 1972, the last human beings left the moon’s surface.
In the half-century that has passed, we have never returned.
After many setbacks and delays, NASA is again ready to return to the moon. This time, the goal is much more ambitious and long-term than the Apollo program ever was.
Learn more about the Artemis program, how it got started, and its objectives on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
When the Apollo Program ended early, and the last three flights were canceled, absolutely no one thought that we wouldn’t return to the moon for 50 years.
The idea was that the space shuttle would become a reusable vehicle to create a space station, and the space station would be a jumping-off point to go to the moon.
The problem is that never happened. The space shuttle fell well short of its goals of being a reusable vehicle, and the International Space Station never became anything more than an end in itself.
The idea of going back to the moon never faded, but it was always on the back burner. Moreover, because NASA had already landed on the moon, the real prize that captured everyone’s imagination was going to Mars.
However, if we are to go to Mars, we first have to back to the Moon.
Other than the six Apollo missions that landed on the moon, which were only there for a few days at most, we have no real experience living on the surface of another celestial body.
Moreover, getting anything off the Earth is incredibly fuel intensive due to gravity. If we could get raw materials such as water that could be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, it would make getting to Mars much easier.
The first serious attempt by NASA to return to the moon began in 2005 with the creation of the Constellation program. The Constellation program was explicitly about the plan I previously described: space station, the Moon, and then Mars.
The program’s stated goal was to land people on Mars by 2020.
Needless to say, that, too, never happened. The Constellation was canceled in 2010 after only five years due to budget issues.
In 2011, approval was given for a new heavy launch system known as the Space Launch System or SLS.
The SLS was to be a rocket bigger than the Saturn V used in the Apollo missions. It was also to be based on technology used during the space shuttle program.
The SLS would have two solid rocket boosters on the side, just like the space shuttle, and the main engines would be based on a design used by the space shuttle.
The reason for the solid rocket boosters is that they provide a lot of thrust. The downside is that you can’t turn them off once they are lit.
The original purpose for the SLS was to support NASA’s deep space missions and for a potential return to the Moon.
The SLS has been very controversial for two reasons. The first is that it is extremely expensive. It has been pushed more by members of congress who represented districts where it would be built than it was by NASA. Second, despite using technology based on the space shuttle, it was woefully behind schedule.
The first SLS launch was supposed to take place in 2016, and it has been delayed a total of sixteen times.
Some have dubbed it the Senate Launch System.
In late 2017, the SLS actually gained a purpose.
The Artemis program was established to return to the moon by 2024 and a Mars landing sometime around 2030.
The name Artemis was aptly chosen as Artemis was the goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology, and she was the twin sister of Apollo.
The Artemis program is much more ambitious than the Apollo program was. For starters, going to the moon is not an end in and of itself like the Apollo program. It is a stepping stone to get to Mars.
Second, the Artemis program aims to establish a permanent base on the moon. Unlike the Apollo missions, which tended to land near the equator, the Artemis missions will initially visit the moon’s south pole, where it is believed there is water.
They can create fuel to get to Mars if they can find water.
Finally, they will also be working with private contractors to bring supplies and people to the moon.
So, what are all the working parts of the Artemis program?
The first, as I mentioned, is the SLS. The SLS, as it will initially be configured, will be 15% larger than the Saturn V, making it the largest rocket in history.
The SLS will be carrying the Orion space vehicle. This includes the capsule that the astronauts will be in and the service module.
The Orion capsule will be much larger than the Apollo command module. For starters, it will carry six crew members instead of four. Secondly, it can last 21 days in space without docking, much longer than the Apollo command and service modules.
Unlike the Apollo program, the astronauts will not be launched into space with their lunar lander. Instead, they will be rendezvousing with their lunar lander in lunar orbit. The place this will happen will be the Lunar Gateway.
The Lunar Gateway will be a small space station that will orbit the moon. It isn’t intended for long-term human habitation but more of a transfer station. It will also serve as a communications platform and a science station.
The way astronauts will get to the moon will be via the Starship Human Landing System. I have previously done an episode on Starship, which will be a multipurpose reusable spacecraft for getting to orbit and landing on planetary surfaces.
A modified Starship will shuttle astronauts from the Lunar Gateway to the surface of the moon and back.
There are several major differences between the Starship Human Landing System and the Apollo LEM. For starters, the Starship will be much larger. Much larger. The LEM was 23 feet tall, whereas the Starship lander will be 164 feet tall.
It will be able to take over 100 tons down to the surface of the Moon.
In addition to size, the biggest difference is that the Starship lander will be completely reusable. The LEM was a two-stage ship, with half of it being left on the moon after take-off. The Starship lander will be a single stage that could go back and forth.
Once they get down to the surface, the plan is to eventually have a lunar base where astronauts can live full time. There hasn’t been a base design selected yet, but several competing designs have been submitted.
Whatever the final design will be, it most probably will be a modular concept that can grow and be extended over time.
Another program known as the Commercial Lunar Payload Services or CLPS will be a series of unmanned missions to the Moon by private companies to explore the surface, mostly at the south pole.
The first of these missions will be launched in November 2022, and it will send a rover made by the company Astrobotic Technology out of Pittsburgh.
Once on the moon, astronauts will have to get around. During the Apollo missions, they used a lunar rover, which was almost like a stripped-down golf cart.
Artemis is planning for two different surface vehicles. One would be the Lunar Terrain Vehicle or LTV. The LTV would be similar to the old lunar rover. It would be unpressurized and designed for short-distance transportation.
The other would be the Lunar Cruiser or the Habitable Mobility Platform. This would be a pressurized vehicle to allow for trips of up to 45 days.
So, as you can tell, this is a far more involved program than Apollo ever was.
What is the timeline for the Artemis program?
By the time you listen to this, most probably, hopefully, Artemis 1 will have launched from Cape Canaveral.
This will be the first launch of the SLS rocket. This will be an unmanned mission that will last approximately 42 days. The objectives are to test the rocket and the Orion spacecraft before returning it to Earth. It is scheduled to be in lunar orbit for six days.
In May 2024, Artemis II is scheduled for launch. This will be the first Artemis mission with a crew. It will be the first mission to orbit the moon since Apollo 17. It is scheduled to have four astronauts, including one Canadian.
Artemis III will launch sometime in 2025. This will be the first mission to land on the moon since 1972. They will spend a little under a week on the moon, setting a record, and it will probably have the first woman to step foot on the moon.
Artemis IV is scheduled for 2027. This will be the first use of the Lunar Gateway.
Artemis V and VI are both scheduled for 2028.
Artemis VII through XI are proposed missions that would take place from 2029 through 2032.
As of now, there is no set timeframe for a Mars mission, nor have there been any vehicles chosen for the mission.
If you are a fan of spaceflight, the next few years are going to be very interesting. We are going to see something which hasn’t been done in over 50 years and other things which haven’t been done ever.
Hopefully, this time, the project isn’t abandoned, and it actually leads to humans setting foot on another planet.