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NASA has embarked on a yearslong mission called Artemis that involves a multistage plan to send astronauts to the moon and beyond. The Artemis mission will culminate with landing the first woman and person of color on the moon.
This mission will prepare humanity for the long journey to Mars, and it will help us establish a sustainable lunar economy. NASA is working with international and commercial partners to carry out the mission.
On Dec. 11, NASA completed the first Artemis mission. Orion, the Artemis I spacecraft, splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after a successful 25.5-day mission around the moon. The Artemis I mission launched on Nov. 16 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, following several aborted launches due to technical issues and storms.
NASA sent the unmanned Orion spacecraft into orbit around the moon to test NASA's deep space exploration systems. At its farthest, Orion was a record-breaking 268,563 miles from Earth, surpassing the distance the Apollo 13 mission set in 1970.
NASA considers the Artemis I mission a success, given the immense amount of valuable data it produced related to Orion's communications, propulsion and navigation systems -- information that will help NASA and its partners prepare to send humans into space for the next Artemis missions.
From 1969 through 1972, the NASA Apollo program took humans to the moon. Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo and the goddess of the moon in Greek mythology.
NASA and its partners have made huge strides since the Apollo program, as demonstrated by the success of the International Space Station. Humans have continuously lived and worked aboard the ISS for two decades. The ISS, however, is just 250 miles above Earth. The moon, by contrast, is 250,000 miles away, while Mars is 140 million miles away.
If humans want to establish a longer-term presence beyond low Earth orbit (where the ISS is located), returning to the moon is the next logical step.
"There are many reasons to go back, or as you may have heard me say, go forward to the moon," then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote in 2019. "With Artemis, we're going to explore more of the moon than ever before, and we're planning to stay this time. We are traveling 250,000 miles to the moon to demonstrate new technologies, capabilities and business approaches needed for future exploration of Mars, which can be as far as 250 million miles away from home."
In the broadest terms, the goals of Artemis are to enable scientific discovery, open up new economic opportunities, and inspire a new generation of scientists, technologists, and leaders.
By returning to the moon, NASA aims to find water and other resources that will support long-term space exploration. Along the way, the agency expects to learn more about the moon, Earth and the universe. Ultimately, establishing a presence on the moon will give NASA and its partners the knowledge and operational confidence necessary to make it to Mars.
Meanwhile, NASA's mission should create new economic opportunities on Earth and beyond. There's already a momentum behind a nascent space economy that, according to NASA leaders, could in 20 years take public and private missions beyond low Earth orbit. NASA aims to stimulate services and infrastructure development on the lunar surface and in cislunar space.
The space economy is already a $400 billion industry "and on the way to $1 trillion, and I suspect it'll get there faster than we think," said James Reuter, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA, earlier this year.
As for inspiring the next generation, there's definitely evidence that space exploration inspires young people to study science. This goal also explains why NASA is committed to sending the first woman and the first person of color to the moon.
"Our job at NASA is to do the things that are difficult, and to do the things that are right, and to motivate our base, which is our youth," NASA's chief astronaut, Reid Wiseman, recently said. "And right now, our country is a diverse and extremely rich country... We want every kid in America to look at our poster and say, 'Oh, I see myself in that... I can do that someday.'"
After a series of delays, NASA launched the Artemis I mission on Nov. 16 and successfully completed the moon mission on Dec. 11.
NASA is now on track to launch the Artemis II mission no earlier than late 2024. That mission will send astronauts on a lunar flyby test, making it the first crewed mission to go beyond low-Earth orbit since 1972. In early 2023, NASA will name the spaceflight crew for Artemis II, which will comprise four astronauts, including one from the Canadian Space Agency.
Then, in 2025 at the earliest, NASA aims to launch the Artemis III mission, sending the first woman and the first person of color to the surface of the moon.
There's a good chance the mission will fall behind schedule. Preparing for such a huge mission just takes time. For instance, Axiom and Collins Aerospace -- the two companies building the next-generation spacesuits that NASA will use in the Artemis mission -- said they expect to be able to demonstrate the suits around 2025. Given those types of constraints, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin told Congress in early 2022 that the Artemis III mission "likely will slip to 2026 at the earliest."
The timeline has been a point of contention since the Artemis mission's beginning. When then-President Donald Trump in 2017 called on NASA to return to the moon, the agency initially expected to make it back by 2028. In 2019, the Trump administration established a more aggressive timeline, aiming to bring astronauts back to the moon by 2024.
The Artemis I mission was unmanned. The mission served as a test of NASA's deep space exploration systems, helping the agency ensure it's ready to send astronauts to the moon and beyond.
The mission successfully achieved its three main objectives. Its primary goal was to demonstrate that the Orion spacecraft's heat shield can withstand the high speed and high heat it experiences at lunar re-entry conditions. When Orion returns from the moon, it reaches speeds of about 24,500 miles an hour. The spacecraft experiences temperatures half as hot as the sun outside the heat shield.
Artemis I's second objective was to demonstrate the operations and flight modes of the rocket and the spacecraft. During the Artemis I flight, NASA teams tested the launch vehicle and spacecraft systems, such as the communications, propulsion, and navigation systems. As part of this objective, NASA was looking for further confidence that Orion, while carrying humans, can tolerate the extreme thermal environment of deep space.
The third objective was to retrieve Orion after splashdown. While engineers received data throughout the course of the mission, retrieving the crew module after splashdown provides information to inform future flights. There were three mannequins aboard the spacecraft that will help NASA understand how the vehicle fared.
The Artemis II mission will send four astronauts on a flight around the moon. In just over 10 days, they'll travel 4,600 miles beyond the far side of the moon. The flight will take the astronauts farther into the solar system than anyone has traveled before.
The point of this mission is to further confirm that NASA's spacecraft systems are ready to take a crew to deep space.
The crew will be able to test the Orion spacecraft's life support systems, as well as its communication and navigation systems. Orion will briefly fly beyond the range of GPS satellites and the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites of NASA's Space Network -- this means its crew will rely on the agency's Deep Space Network to navigate and to communicate with mission control.
NASA has yet to decide which astronauts will travel to the moon. The agency has said it will name the Artemis II flight crew in early 2023.
The agency will primarily consider technical expertise for all of the Artemis missions, as NASA's Wiseman recently said. That includes "the ability to dive into literally any situation, any technical need of the vehicle, to understand when things aren't going quite right, and to understand when they are."
Beyond that, he said, NASA is looking for team players who can work well with each other and flight directors. Wiseman also stressed the significance of sending a diverse crew to the moon, noting that the incoming class of astronauts represents "all walks of life."
In the meantime, NASA's team of 42 astronauts and 10 astronaut candidates are going through rigorous training. It involves landing Army helicopters, studying rocky terrain in areas like Iceland, spending extended periods at the bottom of a pool, and training in VR simulations.
The Artemis III mission will take astronauts to the lunar south pole, an area of the moon where humans have yet to set foot. Scientists expect the lunar south pole to be rich in potential resources, including water. The astronauts will search for these resources and explore opportunities to make use of them.
The crew will also build an Artemis Base Camp on the moon and work on expanding the Gateway -- an outpost that will orbit the moon to provide support for long-term missions on the moon as well as for deep space exploration.
Following Artemis III, NASA intends to launch crewed missions to the moon about once a year.
The entire Artemis mission depends on NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion spacecraft. To land astronauts on the moon, NASA will dock Orion at the Gateway. The astronauts will transfer to the Starship human landing system (HLS) that's being built by the company SpaceX.
NASA is leading the Artemis missions, but it has several international partners, both from the public and private sectors.
More than a dozen countries have signed the Artemis Accords, which lay out shared principles grounded in safety and transparency for governing space exploration, as well as scientific and commercial activities in space.
Some of NASA's biggest collaborators will send their own crew members on Artemis missions. Earlier this year, the US committed to including a Japanese astronaut aboard the lunar Gateway outpost. The US also expressed its support for sending a future Japanese astronaut to the moon as part of the Artemis program. The Artemis II mission will include one astronaut from the Canadian Space Agency.
The European Space Agency is also a significant contributor to the Artemis program. The ESA, for instance, designed Orion's service module -- the part of the spacecraft that supplies air, electricity and propulsion. In exchange for the service modules, the ESA will receive three seats on future Artemis missions, Space News reported.
In November 2021, the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) published an audit of the Artemis program, finding that NASA had already spent around $40 billion on the series of missions. The OIG said it expects the agency to spend around $93 billion by 2025.
As Space.com notes, the US spent $28 billion on NASA's Apollo program between 1960 and 1973, according to the nonprofit The Planetary Society. That's about $280 billion in today's dollars.