NASA's Artemis program is an effort to place astronauts on the lunar surface and develop an ongoing presence there.
NASA successfully launched Artemis 1 at 01:47 a.m. EST (0647 GMT) on November 16, from Launch Complex 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It concluded a 25.5-day lunar mission with a successful splashdown off the coast of Mexico's Baja Peninsula at 12:40 p.m. EST on Dec. 11, 2022.
The program's name is derived from Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon and twin sister to Apollo, whose namesake program first brought astronauts to our natural satellite on July 20, 1969.
The Artemis program is a renaming of several earlier activities NASA was already undertaking to return humans to the moon. These were mandated by President Trump's Space Policy Directive 1, which tasked the agency with focusing on missions to the moon. In 2019, vice president Mike Pence set an ambitious deadline to land humans at the lunar south pole by 2024.
Perhaps the most ambitious of the Artemis mission's objectives involves using the moon as a stepping stone for a mission to Mars. Robots have done all the detective work on Mars so far, but NASA now aims to send astronauts there by the 2030s. With a future target set on the Red Planet, the return to the moon will be used to provide us with the knowledge and tools to better navigate our solar system. But how can the moon help prepare us for a mission to Mars, an entirely different and more unpredictable mission?
Three-time NASA astronaut Steven Swanson– who has logged over 195 days in space during three missions to the International Space Station (aboard Space Shuttle flights STS-117 and STS-119 and Soyuz flight TMA-12M)– spoke about the significance of Artemis with Space.com's sister publication How It Works magazine.
"The real goal is Mars. And we will use the moon as a testbed because Mars is a very difficult mission," Swanson said in the November 2020 issue. "It's going to take almost three years, and you can't come home early on a Mars mission. It's a seven or eight-month journey to get there and you have to wait 15 months there for the planets to align correctly again before you return."
"As well as Mars, we can also use the moon as a testbed for other things – to see how we can actually gather materials from the moon itself and maybe use that to make our fuel."
On May 14, 2019, the mission's goals were given the new moniker Artemis. Jim Bridenstine, the space agency's administrator, told reporters on the day of the announcement that the name represents the program's goal of inclusion, referencing the fact that NASA intends to land the first woman on the moon under its current plans.
"I have a daughter who is 11 years old, and I want her to be able to see herself in the same role as the next women [who] go to the moon see themselves in today," Bridenstine said.
First woman on the moon
Between 1969 and 1972, six missions took place in which 12 people walked on the surface of the moon — all of them men. For such a high-risk mission, the most experienced astronauts were required, and at the time there were no women at NASA who had suitable test flight experience. For a long time, space was viewed as an industry primarily for men, and it wasn't until 1978 that NASA selected its first female astronauts. As of March 2022, 75 women have been to space, and the Artemis moon landing will serve as a reminder of changing times.
While it's currently undecided who will be chosen, it will likely be one of NASA's astronauts who has already worked aboard the ISS. In December 2020, NASA announced the Artemis team of astronauts, which included nine women (Kayla Barron, Christina H. Koch, Nicole A. Mann, Anne McClain, Jessica Meir, Jasmin Moghbeli, Kate Rubins, Jessica Watkins and Stephanie Wilson) and nine men (Joseph Acaba, Raja Chari, Matthew Dominick, Victor Glover, Warren Hoburg, Jonny Kim, Kjell Lindgren, Frank Rubio and Scott Tingle). In August 2022, chief astronaut Reid Wiseman announced that all active NASA astronauts are eligible for Artemis missions, with crew selections to be determined at a later date.
Artemis' three-part plan
At the center of the Artemis program are NASA's new megarocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft. The SLS is a 322-foot-tall (98 meters) rocket consisting of a core stage, upper stage and twin five-segment solid rocket boosters to launch a payload into space. For crewed Artemis missions, the rocket will launch the Orion spacecraft to the moon. Orion is a space capsule larger than the Apollo command modules that are designed to carry four astronauts on missions to the moon.
2022: Artemis 1
NASA successfully launched Artemis 1 at 01:47 a.m. EST (0647 GMT) on November 16, from Launch Complex 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The first mission was uncrewed to test the safety of the SLS rocket, and the Orion capsule's ability to reach the moon, perform in lunar orbit and return to Earth for an ocean splashdown. The SLS rocket carried 10 cubesats into space to perform experiments and technology demonstrations.
The Orion capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California on Dec. 11, bringing a successful end to NASA's historic Artemis 1 moon mission after a 1.4 million-mile (2.3 million kilometers) flight.
2024: Artemis 2
Carrying the first four Artemis astronauts, the Orion capsule will take the crew farther from Earth than humans have ever traveled before. Over the approximately 10-day mission, the crew will complete a lunar flyby and return to Earth, evaluating the spacecraft's systems while carrying humans.
2025: Artemis 3
This will see the next man and first woman step onto the lunar surface. Providing previous missions have been successful, the astronauts will shoot towards the moon, using the lunar lander to lower two people to the moon's south polar region. They will remain on the moon for around a week.
Earth to moon
What the Artemis project includes
Under Artemis' umbrella are several components. First is the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a station around the moon that would extend humanity's presence in space and provide a platform for scientific experiments and jaunts to the lunar surface.
The Gateway would be carried into lunar orbit by the agency's SLS rocket), a gigantic new rocket NASA is developing. Four-person crews would access the station using the Orion deep-space capsule and remain for 30 to 90 day stints.
Part of the Trump administration's push towards the moon includes an enlarged role for private aerospace firms, which are intended to develop hardware and potentially kick-start a lunar economy. NASA has awarded $45.5 million to 11 U.S. companies, including Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, to develop landers that can take astronauts to the moon's surface. SpaceX was selected to provide the Artemis 3 crew lander based on that company's huge Starship vehicle.
Nine smaller businesses have also been contracted to deliver robotic spacecraft to our natural satellite in order to collect data and conduct research there. Some have taken an interest in mining lunar resources such as water, which can be split into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen and converted into rocket fuel.
While astronauts have undergone multiple spacewalks since the Apollo missions, these have not required them to walk on the surface of a celestial body. The next astronaut to walk on the moon will do so in a brand-new, updated spacesuit.
NASA has unveiled Artemis generation spacesuits designed especially for the mission: one for the launch and landing, worn inside the spacecraft, and one to protect the bodies of those venturing outside the protection of the Orion capsule. The suits will be custom fit to their bodies, with the aim of improving upon the comfort and practicality of previous versions.
Reflecting on the five spacewalks he undertook during his career, Swanson said, "the biggest difference (in the new suits) is in the shoulders. You get the ability to really reach around and have more movement, like you would without a suit on."
"They also have better mobility on the legs. On the ISS, you didn't really use your legs much for anything, so it didn't matter how much mobility you had in your lower body. Now it's going to matter tremendously on the moon."
The launch rocket is responsible for the all-important task of firing the capsule and crew into space. The Space Launch System is NASA's new rocket designed for human space travel beyond Earth orbit. Having to travel almost 1,000 times farther than those headed for the ISS, it's designed to reach speeds of 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) per hour.
Approximately eight minutes after launch, the core stage falls away and the astronauts continue with their journey to the moon.
Where is Artemis going?
For the initial Artemis moon missions, the selected astronauts will likely fly to the moon’s south pole. This area has great potential as it is believed to be home to the highest abundance of water ice. If we can extract this water, it could be used to sustain human exploration farther into space, whether that's as a human hydration source, rocket fuel resource, or cooling system for equipment.
Shackleton crater is a huge 12-mile (19-kilometer) depression in the moon's surface and a feature definitely worth visiting. With a permanent shadow cast in the dips of the crater, the low temperatures make it a promising location for ice to form.
In fact, these permanently lightless areas maintain some of the coldest temperatures in the entire solar system. Although it's possible that water can be found even on the moon's lit surfaces, an area likely to have the highest abundance of water is the best spot to start looking for further natural resources.
How much will Artemis cost?
How many of these impressive plans will actually see fruition is difficult to tell at this point. Cost estimates are still being refined and the overall price tag of Artemis remains unknown. The Apollo program's budget ended up being a total of $23.6 billion in 1973 dollars, according to NASA, the equivalent of more than $136 billion today. That means each Apollo moon landing cost around $22.6 billion dollars.
For Artemis, NASA's spending is projected to reach $93 billion by 2025 with each SLS/Orion launch costing $4.1 billion.
"The Artemis Team". NASA (2022).
"Around the Moon with NASA’s First Launch of SLS with Orion". NASA (2021).
"NASA Human Exploration and Operations Overview". NASA Advisory Council.
"Space Launch System". NASA (2022).
"Inside NASA's Artemis mission". Royal Museums Greenwich.
"Moon’s South Pole in NASA’s Landing Sites". NASA (2019).
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Adam Mann is a journalist specializing in astronomy and physics stories. His work has appeared in the New York Times, New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, Wired, Nature, Science, and many other places. He lives in Oakland, California, where he enjoys riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter @adamspacemann or visit his website at https://www.adamspacemann.com/.