Artemis I will be the first in a series of NASA’s unprecedented missions, currently scheduled for launch in November 2021 by the agency Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will serve as a screwless flight test in preparation for Artemis III, which aims to launch the next man and the first woman of humanity to the moon in 2024.
Named after Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology, Artemis’ unplanned space flight will be possible using two of NASA’s latest space systems: Orion, the crew module designed to transport humans into space, and Space launch system (SLS), the most powerful rocket in the world built to date. This will be a demonstration of NASA’s capabilities to allow human exploration to the Moon, Mars and beyond, in a process that claims to go further and be faster and technologically more advanced than ever.
Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager at NASA headquarters, said:
This is a mission that will really do what has not been done and learn what is not known. It will open a path that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for this mission.
The Orion crew module and the SLS rocket are to be launched together from the historic Kennedy Space Center Launch complex 39B. The SLS – a rocket more powerful than the Saturn V that propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon – will produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust (39 million Newton) with its five propellers and four engines during takeoff to put 2.7 million kg (six million pounds) of vehicle in orbit. After releasing the thrusters, the engines will be shut down and the rocket’s central stage (main body) will separate from the spacecraft.
Next are a series of technical propulsion stages that will give Orion the strength it needs to leave Earth’s orbit and head towards the moon, but not before launching a series of small satellites called CubeSats while on the way. These CubeSats will conduct a series of experiments and demonstrations unrelated to the Artemis mission in deep space, such as exposing living microorganisms to a radiation environment in deep space for the first time in more than 40 years.
Once in lunar orbit, Orion will collect data and allow mission controllers to evaluate its performance for about a week. When ready to return home, Orion will use its propulsion system in space provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) together with the moon’s gravity, to return to Earth. The ESA service module will provide – in addition to space propulsion – energy, air and water for astronauts on future missions.
About three weeks and more than 1.3 million miles (2.1 million km) later, the Artemis I mission will end with a test of Orion’s return capabilities, directing it to land near a recovery ship in Baja, California coast. All of this may sound like complex technical work. And it is, but don’t worry – this useful NASA video illustrates the entire mission:
Although the coronavirus pandemic has delayed the SLS test, the process is being resumed at the agency’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Boeing led the construction of the SLS megarocket and is now involved in a testing process called Green run. This will culminate in a hot fire test, where the rocket starts its engines while it is tied to the ground and supports each stage of a launch as if it were actually taking place. This test was originally scheduled for November 2020 and is now planned for the end of December. This delay may leave little scope to keep things on track for the launch of Artemis I in 2021.
After the hot fire test, the main stage will be refurbished and taken to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for further testing. The development of Orion, led by Lockheed Martin and Airbus Defense and Space, has encountered its own delays, although the spacecraft is on track to begin preparations for the launch of Artemis I in the first part of 2021.
The second mission – Artemis II – will test Orion’s critical systems with humans on board and is scheduled for August 2023. As planned, this will be the first manned spacecraft to travel beyond low Earth orbit since Apollo 17 in 1972.
Future crew exploration missions aboard Orion will be coupled to the Gateway, an outpost that NASA plans to build in orbit around the moon to support long-term, sustainable human return to the lunar surface. NASA lunar director Marshall Smith says:
We don’t need to take the giant leap at once. For a future mission, after we demonstrate that we can reach the moon and make a landing module work, we can make both fit into the Portal.
In short: Artemis I is a test flight without screws, where the Orion crew module will be launched with the Space Launch System, designed to be the most powerful rocket in the world. It is the first in a series of missions designed to bring humans back to the Moon and, eventually, Mars.