NASA just took a big step toward its next moonshot.
NASA stacked its Orion crew capsule atop its Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday (Oct. 20), notching a major milestone for the agency and its Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration.
This Orion-SLS duo will fly the first-ever mission in that program — Artemis 1, an uncrewed flight around the moon that's targeted to launch early next year.
Artemis 1 will also loft 10 tagalong cubesats, or small satellites, which will perform a variety of tasks after deploying from Orion. For example, BioSentinel will study the effects of deep-space radiation on yeast DNA, and Near-Earth Asteroid Scout will fly by a space rock, which it will reach using a solar sail.
Artemis 2, a crewed trip to lunar orbit, is scheduled to lift off in 2023. Then will come Artemis 3, which will land astronauts on the moon for the first time since 1972. At least one of the Artemis 3 moonwalkers will be a woman, NASA officials have said — the first to ever set foot on the lunar surface.
In 2019, then-President Donald Trump directed NASA to achieve the initial crewed lunar landing by 2024. That ambitious timeline remains the official target, but it's widely expected to slip by a year or two.
Artemis activities will extend far beyond Artemis 3's landmark touchdown; NASA wants the program to establish a long-term, sustainable human presence on and around the moon by the end of the 2020s.
The agency also believes that the skills and expertise gained during the execution of that goal will help humanity make its next giant leap — a crewed trip to Mars, which NASA aims to achieve in the 2030s.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.