NASA’s Artemis program has some big shoes to fill. The program, named after the Greek goddess that represents the Moon, is planning on landing humans there by 2024. The Moon’s first woman and next man will land there, with more technology than ever before, and will be studying living on another surface, which will lead to understanding how to properly land and live on Mars.
It’s been nearly fifty years since humans walked its surface during the Apollo program, but our technology has improved dramatically. The purpose of these missions is not only to expand the engineering and development of technology for the future but also to provide operational confidence that long-term work can be conducted away from Earth.
Starting with the launch of Commercial Lunar Payload Services this year, NASA will be working with commercial partners to ferry 16 of their instruments down to the lunar surface that will collect chemistry data and conduct other science experiments.
At the end of 2021, the Artemis I will be sent to the Moon in an uncrewed Orion spacecraft. This mission will test launch and lunar orbit paths that use the Moon’s gravity to capture the craft, and will also test the performance of Orion’s heat shields during reentry to Earth.
In 2022, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) will be exploring the Moon to sample various soil environments. These drill samples will be essential to discover the amount of water ice at the Moon’s south pole. Not only will it provide surface-level detail showcasing exactly where the water is located, but will assess exactly how much water is available.
VIPER is following the success of the 2009 LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) mission to crash a depleted fuel tank into the Moon’s south pole to determine if water ice actually existed below the surface. This mission also deployed the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which flew through the plume and determined the existence of water ice on the Moon and is still mapping the lunar surface to this day.
In 2023, Artemis II will launch, taking a four-person crewed spacecraft around the Moon, further than humankind has ever traveled in space. An interesting footnote in these early Artemis missions is that the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage that will help get the craft to the Moon is intended to be disposed of in such a way that it enters Heliocentric orbit, forever confined to rotate around the barycenter of the Sun, but there are talks to have it return to Earth for disposal instead.
Finally, in 2024, the launch of the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) will be the first stages of the Lunar Gateway, which is the ISS-similar orbiting station that will be traveling around the Moon and will provide a base station for astronauts traveling down to the lunar surface. When Artemis III launches that year, it will dock with the Gateway and then two astronauts will be carried down to the surface by the Human Landing System (HLS).
The HLS is a lander that will have a pressurized crew cabin portion that will support a week-long mission on the surface. The Artemis III mission is aiming to go back to the south pole that VIPER explored and have astronauts sample the water ice there. They will also have access to an unpressurized Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV) to further their range. When not being used, this vehicle can also be controlled remotely to perform additional experiments and transport assets to deployable locations.
The Artemis Program is an ambitious one, as any space exploration mission is, but this particular mission puts humans back on the surface that the Apollo missions delivered success from. There has been a lot of learning — and failures — along the way, but one thing’s still certain: with our spirit and dedication to conducting scientific research and exploring the unknowns of space, the endless bounties of knowledge are ours for the taking.