Artemis 1 NASA
NASA's Artemis 1 mission is the first step towards Artemis 3, which is going to result in the first human mission to the Moon in the 21st century and the first since 1972 | Pic: NASA

NASA’s Artemis 1 mission: Here’s what to expect and why it’s important

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NASA’s Artemis 1 mission is poised to take a key step towards returning humans to the Moon after a half-century hiatus. The mission, scheduled to launch on Monday, August 29, 2022, is a shakedown cruise sans crew for NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion Crew Capsule.

The spacecraft is scheduled to travel to the Moon, deploy some small satellites and then settle into orbit. NASA aims 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 safely return to Earth.

The Conversation asked Jack Burns, a professor and space scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and former member of the Presidential Transition Team for NASA, to describe the mission, explain what the Artemis programme promises to do for space exploration, and reflect on how the space programme has changed in the half-century since humans last set foot on the lunar surface.

How does Artemis 1 differ from the other rockets being launched routinely?

Artemis 1 is going to be the first flight of the new Space Launch System. This is a heavy lift vehicle, as NASA refers to it. It will be the most powerful rocket engine ever flown to space, even more powerful than Apollos Saturn V system that took astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s and 70s.

It’s a new type of rocket system, because it has both a combination of liquid oxygen and hydrogen main engines and two strap-on solid rocket boosters derived from the space shuttle. It’s really a hybrid between the space shuttle and Apollos Saturn V rocket.

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Testing is very important because the Orion Crew Capsule is going to get a real workout. It will be in the space environment of the Moon, a high-radiation environment, for a month. And very importantly, it will be testing the heat shield which protects the capsule and its occupants when it comes back to the Earth at 25,000 miles per hour. This will be the fastest capsule reentry since Apollo, so it’s very important that the heat shield function well.

This mission is also going to carry a series of small satellites that will be placed in Moon’s orbit. Those will do some useful precursor science, everything from looking further into the permanently shadowed craters where scientists think there is water to just doing more measurements of the radiation environment, seeing what the effects will be on humans for long-term exposure.

What is the goal?

The mission is a first step toward Artemis 3, which is going to result in the first human missions to the Moon in the 21st century and the first since 1972. Artemis 1 is an uncrewed test flight.

Artemis 2, which is scheduled to launch a few years after that, will have astronauts on board. It too, will be an orbital mission, very much like Apollo 8, which circled the Moon and came back home. The astronauts will spend a longer time orbiting the Moon and will test everything with a human crew.
And finally, that will lead a journey to the Moon’s surface, in which Artemis 3 sometime mid-decade will rendezvous with the SpaceX Starship and transfer crew.

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Orion will remain in orbit and the lunar Starship will take the astronauts to the surface. They will go to the south pole of the Moon to look at an area scientists have not explored before to investigate the water ice there.

Artemis is reminiscent of Apollo

The reason for Apollo that Kennedy envisioned initially was to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon. The administration did not particularly care about space travel or about the Moon itself, but it represented an audacious goal that would clearly put America first in terms of space and technology.

The downside of doing that is the old saying, ‘You live by the sword, you die by the sword’. When the US got to the Moon, it was basically game over. We beat the Russians. So we put some flags down and did some science experiments. But pretty quickly after Apollo 11, within a few more missions, Richard Nixon canceled the programme because the political objectives had been met.

So fast-forward 50 years, this is a very different environment. We are not doing this to beat the Russians or the Chinese or anybody else, but to begin a sustainable exploration beyond Earth’s orbit.

The Artemis programme is driven by a number of different goals. It includes in situ resource utilisation, which means using resources at hand like water, ice and lunar soil to produce food, fuel and building materials.

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The programme is also helping to establish a lunar and space economy, starting with entrepreneurs, because SpaceX is very much part of this first mission to the surface of the Moon. NASA does not own the Starship but is buying seats to allow astronauts to go to the surface. SpaceX will then use the Starship for other purposes to transport other payloads, private astronauts and astronauts from other countries.

Fifty years of technology development means that going to the Moon now is much less expensive and more technologically feasible, and much more sophisticated experiments are possible when you just figure the computer technology.

Those 50 years of technological advancement have been a complete game-changer. Almost anybody with the financial resources can send a spacecraft to the Moon now, though not necessarily with humans.

NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts private companies to build uncrewed landers to go to the Moon. My colleagues and I have a radio telescope that is going to the Moon on one of the landers in January. That just would not have been possible 10 years ago.

What else in store?

The administration has said that in that first crewed flight, on Artemis 3, there will be at least one woman and very likely a person of colour. They may be one and the same. There may be several.

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I am looking forward to seeing more of that diversity, because young kids today who are looking up at NASA, can say, ‘Hey, there is an astronaut who looks like me, I can do this, I can be a part of the space programme’.

(The Conversation) 

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