NASA's Artemis 1 Orion snaps gorgeous moon views as it sails over Apollo landing sites (video)

On Monday (Dec. 5), a NASA spacecraft saw every landing site on the moon that humans have ever visited in person.

NASA's Orion spacecraft zoomed in close to the moon on Monday on the eighth anniversary of another Orion capsule's first brief test flight in Earth orbit in 2014. This time, the human-rated spacecraft was completing an engine burn near the moon to send the Artemis 1 mission back home as it entered the final week of a nearly month-long journey.

On a live NASA Television broadcast just before the successful engine burn, NASA spokesperson Sandra Jones spoke with deputy Apollo curator Juliane Gross about the six Apollo lunar landing sites visible behind the uncrewed Orion and how NASA's new moon program will build on Apollo's geological legacy.

In photos: Artemis 1 launch: Amazing views of NASA's moon rocket debut 

Starting with the crewed Artemis 3 landing mission in 2025 or so, NASA plans to recover a wider range of rocks than basalts, which represented most of what Apollo astronauts found at their equatorial landing sites, Gross explained. 

"We don't really expect a lot of basalts there," Gross said, referring to the south polar region of the moon where Artemis program astronauts will touch down. "That's more like a highland region," she added.

During the broadcast, Orion was flying roughly 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) above the sites where a dozen Apollo astronauts journeyed on the lunar surface during short excursions between 1969 and 1972. All told, six missions touched down: Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17; Apollo 13 aborted its landing following a spacecraft emergency.

"Apollo wasn't so much about science," Gross said. "It was more about, 'We're actually going to the moon, and we can do it [with] the technology to show that we can do it." However, all lunar astronauts received at least some fundamental geology training — and that expanded later in the Apollo program.

Among the earlier missions' achievements was the pinpoint landing of Apollo 12, which proved that future excursions could do geology "in more difficult terrain," Gross said, referring to the highland equatorial regions targeted by the latter three Apollo missions. The astronauts and their geology teams tracked down younger basalts than found during Apollo 11, helping with relative dating of events on the moon, she said.

In photos: See the moon like the Apollo astronauts

A live view of the moon from the Orion spacecraft during the Artemis 1 mission on Dec. 5, 2022. (Image credit: NASA Television)

Apollo 14 brought back about 92 pounds (42 kilograms) of lunar rocks, including some excavated by the collision that created the huge Imbrium basin, Gross said. The rocks, when exposed to so much heat and pressure, "reset" their geologic clocks — which is useful to date the impact event, she added. "We want to know when Imbrium formed, because it's such a big event that happened on the moon," she said.

Both Apollo 12 and Apollo 14 samples included a "weird component" called KREEP, Gross said. KREEP is an acronym geologists use for rocks that include potassium (K on the periodic table), rare earth elements (REE) and phosphorous (P). 

Apollo 15 also collected KREEP, which scientist believe formed in the aftermath of a world-colliding moment when a Mars-size planetoid slammed into Earth, creating the moon. The rock type formed as the moon was solidifying from its "magma ocean" stage as the bits and pieces surrounding Earth began to coalesce, according to the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

All NASA astronauts were trained in at least basic moon geology, and starting with Apollo 15 (pictured) they received more extensive scientific training. (Image credit: NASA/Project Apollo Archive)

Gross didn't detail the geology work of Apollos 15, 16 and 17 during the broadcast, but those astronauts did as much highland region science as feasible in three-day-long missions. These astronauts underwent extensive geology training led by California Institute of Technology geologist Lee Silver, who died earlier this year at age 96. NASA also flew a single professionally trained geologist, Harrison Schmitt, aboard Apollo 17; he found young "orange" soil during his surface excursions.

Gross called all the Apollo rocks "really, really cool" (the astronauts returned with some 842 pounds, or 382 kilograms, of material, according to NASA.) But all six excursions stuck to equatorial regions of the near side, which are not representative of all the moon has to offer. 

Related: The weirdest things Apollo astronauts left on the moon 

"If I would give you six missions and you land them on Earth, and you land them all in Yellowstone National Park ... you get, geologically speaking, really interesting rocks," Gross said. "But they're not representative for the United States, or for the rest of the world."

The south pole landing site of Artemis, by contrast, will feature fewer basalts and more volatiles (lightweight elements like water) in the basin left by a huge impact that may have thrown up datable rocks telling us when the cosmic crash happened, Gross said.

Landing at the south pole could show "our own history and how the moon formed and evolved over time, better than we can with Apollo," she added. "We're missing a lot of rocks and processes with Apollo and hopefully, we can fill these gaps with Artemis."

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon:

  • DrRaviSharma
    I worked on Apollo, Skylab, Shuttle and Space Station Programs.
    Received NASA Apollo Achievement Award 1969 ... etc.

    While Artemis is Welcome and was covered in the article and other writeups,,
    I found lack of seriousness in lighter vein comments on Science during Apollo Missions.
    There are not many of us alive or active but as implied in the article and others on Artemis topic there was an Office of Manned (now human) Space Flight OMSF and it had MSF Experiment Board.
    We were part of the Board organization at NASA HQ that included 12+ Scientists. We were responsible for all experiments from ground, in labs, around earth orbit, on way to moon and on the surface and orbit around the moon and analyses after return and samples from Moon.
    Geology (Lunar) was certainly the second priority, fist unspoken and spoken fact was leadership in space as announced by President Kennedy and credit taken by Presidents Johnson and Nixon.
    The experiments had dozens of Private company contractors and universities for fabrication, tests and analyses, and hundreds of PIs for non sample studies.
    We were responsible for training the astronauts.

    Areas were:
    Space navigation, star trackers and contamination of spacecraft, a limit also seen for Artemis mission
    Particle dispersions and sublimation in space for Mars Atmosphere and interstellar grain studies
    Coronagraphs for solar studies
    Hasselblad Cameras for Lunar surface multispectral analysis
    Cosmic radiation on Lunar surface including reflected sunlight and astronauts helmet design in light of XUV.
    Entire Suite of ALSEP that included structure (internal( of Moon
    Space Power RTG Radioisotope generation
    Spacecraft exterior samples and other measurements for meteorites and micrometeorites
    Impact of Saturn IVB rocket stages on moon and recording by ALSEP
    life support, Space biology and human performance parameters.
    Tracking of Spacecrafts and dumps of water waste water and cryogens in spaceThe list is from my memory and from my own work on many of them and many other colleagues in the team could each give a long list such as surface transport rovers.
    Start of Ascent stages and performances.
    Some of the scientists internal to NASA HQ team OMSF MSFEB are listed
    Dr Julius Dohnanyi - meteorites
    Dr Farouq Elbaz - Landing sites
    Dr Tony Kontaratos
    Dr Charles Buffalano
    Dr David Wood
    Dr Warren Grobman
    Dr Bill MacLaughlin
    Dr WM Smith Geology
    Dr Noel Hinners
    Dr Arnold Pearse
    Dr Bill Thompson
    Dr Ravi Sharma (author of this thread)
    many more....
    Supervisors Directors also included NASA Associate Administrators. Von Braun
    Dr Chuck Matthews George Miller Nancy Roman and NRL Directors etc.

    Beside there were eminent scientists such as
    Tommy Gold - Lunar
    William Fowler - Nuclear astrophysics
    Carl Sagan - Lunar
    Frank Low - IR Astronomy and detectors

    Please note that seriousness for science was not lacking nor were the funds.
    Accomplishments have also been sidestepped.
    Hundreds of pathbreaking discoveries reports products and services have resulted from Apollo and subsequent missions.

    It has anguished me that Apollo accomplishments of 50+ years ago in then unchartered territory have been pushed under the rug to glorify this long awaited Lunar mission, yet unmanned!
    I want to point out only a few of the shortcomings of Artemis which I hope will be seriously addressed in Artemis 2 and 3 etc. to bring it at par with early apollo missions.

    I have for past few weeks been asking whether full life Support systems are being tested.
    Truth is being revealed now.
    No - Nitrogen system tests are only part of what is needed.
    Oxygen being more reactive as well as water for consumption should have been tested on this $4B dollar mission Apollo each was only $400M.

    Why were the South pole target of future related rocket firings and restarts not attempted.

    The list is long and needs to prioritize all and many more capabilities that should be tested on Artemis 2 and not be postponed to Artemis 3, thus we will reduce the risks to human missions and we could have taken a bit more bold steps now rather than on Artemis 2.

    Finally our Apollo motto should be improved upon:
    "If primary and Secondary systems fail, the tertiary systems should fail in safe-mode!"

    I am afraid that lack of strict and logical and open communication is likely if we do not watch out.
    I was not in the US during Challenger disaster and I am obviously not Feynman, but during the first night after the Columbia disaster when the suppressed email was public, I wrote to NASA 5 different actions that could have possibly saved the crew even if the Shuttle were to be abandoned or repaired in orbit.
    3 of them were accepted by panel for subsequent shuttle missions over next several years.

    Most important final message is that real science is allowed to yield maximum results in an open unobstructive collaborative environment and hope we strengthen that during the next 10-20 year lifecycle of the Artemis Program!
    After Waiting 50+ years we are all thrilled at this great upscale and successful Artemis mission. ready to land soon.

    (Dr. Ravi Sharma, Ph.D. USA)
    NASA Apollo Achievement Award
    Chair, Ontology Summit 2022
    Particle and Space Physics
    Senior Enterprise Architect