I recently had the incredible opportunity to spend an entire day at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for the Artemis I Media Day. Growing up around the space program near Edwards AFB in California, I have always felt like NASA has been a part of my DNA. I’m excited to share with you NASA’s first step in planning to go back to the Moon.
Why Did We Stop Going to the Moon?
On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy challenged our country.
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
Thus, the Apollo program was born. Less than a decade after President Kennedy’s charge, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the Moon.
December 7-19, 1972, Apollo 17 completed the last human mission to the Moon with astronauts Eugene A. Cernan (Commander), Harrison H. Schmitt (Lunar Module Pilot and first scientist-astronaut to land on the moon) and Ronald E. Evans (Command Module Pilot).
Between Apollo 11 and Apollo 17, only twelve humans have walked on the Moon. And we haven’t been back since. Why?
According the the National Air and Space Museum,
For many citizens, beating the Soviet Union to the Moon ended the Space Race. Public support for expensive programs of human space exploration, never very high, declined considerably; enthusiasm was further eroded by the expense of the Vietnam War, the serious problems in the cities, and a growing sense of environmental crises. That disappointed space advocates who expected that Apollo would be the beginning of an era in which humans would move out into space, to bases on the Moon, space stations in Earth orbit, and landings on Mars.
Why Are We Going Back to the Moon?
The 2022 world is almost parallel to the 1972 world. Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, the US economy is in flux, COVID, civil unrest, extreme droughts across the nation. It begs the question, why are we going back?
We’re going back to the Moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits, and inspiration for a new generation of explorers: the Artemis Generation. While maintaining American leadership in exploration, we will build a global alliance and explore deep space for the benefit of all. – NASA
NASA has a three-pronged approach for the big why.
- The Artemis program builds on more than 50 years of exploration experience to reignite America’s passion for discovery.
- Artemis missions will enable a growing lunar economy by fueling new industries, supporting job growth, and furthering the demand for a skilled workforce.
- NASA and it’s commercial and international partners will explore more of the Moon than ever before.
My own personal take on the why – much like the Apollo program, I hope Artemis brings back that sense of unity and wonder to our entire world. From an economic standpoint, the amount of jobs that have already been and will be created to support the Artemis missions will grow the world’s economy.
NASA isn’t the only entity involved with the Artemis missions: the European Space Agency, and contractors Lockheed Martin, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Teledyne Brown and Jacobs are all working together to build this space economy. With NASA investments, the big contractors and small businesses all play a role in the Artemis program. Artemis is creating thousands of jobs across our country.
All these jobs lead to one common goal – answering what is our place in the universe? What can we learn about our planet from the Moon? How far will human ingenuity take us? Will science fiction of the human race becoming multiple planet dwellers become a reality in our lifetime?
Artemis I Mission – Getting to the Moon
Currently slated for a launch date of August 29, 2022 with an 8:33 a.m. to 10:33 a.m. EDT launch window from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Artemis I will be an uncrewed flight test that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration. As with any new technology, it’s always best to test the capability of something without the possibility of human death – I just have to put that out there. Here’s my simplified way of breaking down the mission components.
The Space Launch System (SLS) is NASA’s newest and most powerful rocket to date. It has the ability to carry more payload to deep space than any other vehicle. It will also provide the power to help the Orion spacecraft reach a speed of 24,500 miles per hour—the speed needed to send it to the Moon.
The Orion spacecraft sits on top of the SLS and will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.
After blasting off from Florida and getting to the point it needs to be, the Space Launch System rocket will jettison all it’s remaining parts back to Earth and an interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) will remain attached to the Orion spacecraft. With one lap around Earth, the ICPS will deploy it’s solar arrays to give it the push it needs to get out of low Earth orbit.
The ICPS will point Orion to a target that allows for the spacecraft to be captured by the Moon’s own gravity. From there, Orion will then separate itself from the ICPS (which by the way, is only two hours after launch) and be on it’s way to the Moon with the help of a service module providing it’s propulsion and power.
Once the Orion spacecraft separates itself from the ICPS, the ICPS will basically belch out ten little things called CubeSats. CubeSats are small satellites about the size of a shoebox, weighing in around 25 pounds each. The little guys will all have their own destinations, including the Moon or out farther into space. You can read more about the mission of some of them here.
It will take Orion a few days to get to the Moon. Once it gets there and gets pulled into the Moon’s gravity, it will spend the next few weeks orbiting the Moon in a VERY VERY VERY elliptical orbit. I am not joking, ya’ll. At it’s closest approach to the Moon, Orion will only be a mere 60 miles above the surface of the Moon and at it’s longest approach, it will be 40,000 MILES AWAY.
You read that right, 60 miles up, 40,000 miles back. It’s maximum distance from Earth will be approximately 280,000 miles away. That farthest distance is record breaking! While we obviously have plenty of satellites and other objects (like the James Webb Space Telescope) much farther out in space, no spacecraft has flown that far away from Earth that actually comes back.
Artemis I Mission – What It’s Going to Do While Flying Around the Moon
I know I may have mentioned that Orion was going to be uncrewed, but technically, it does have a small crew of three. Say hello to Commander Moonikin Campos, Helga and Zohar.
Commander Campos in a manikan that will be outfitted with two sensors to record acceleration and vibration throughout the mission. The Commander will also be wearing the Orion Crew Survival System suit – a spacesuit astronauts will wear during launch, entry, and other phases of their missions. The spacesuit will be equipped with radiation sensors.
Helga and Zohar are two manikan torsos. manufactured from materials that mimic human bones, soft tissues, and organs of an adult female. Each one is fitted with more than 5,600 passive sensors and 34 active radiation detectors to measure radiation exposure. Zohar will be the lucky one wearing a radiation protective vest, called AstroRad. Poor Helga will not be. Helga and Zohar will both provide valuable data on radiation levels astronauts may encounter on lunar missions. They will help determine if the protective vest would allow the crew to exit the storm shelter and continue working on mission activities in spite of a solar storm.
Along with Commander Campos, Helga and Zohar, Orion will be collecting an incredible amount of information during it’s mission:
- Studying the radiation environment of deep space and the total radiation dose during the mission (very helpful to know what humans will be facing when we go back to the Moon).
- Testing the Hybrid Electronic Radiation Assessor (HERA) that will warn future crews when the Sun decides to throw solar flares and coronal mass ejections our way as astronauts will have to scramble for cover in a storm shelter until it passes.
- Four space biology investigations to look at the impact of deep space radiation on the value of seeds (yes, for planting food!), DNA repair of fungi, adaptation of yeast, and how algae makes protein (gene expression) during the journey around the Moon.
- Technology demonstration of Callisto, which brings Amazon’s Alexa and Cisco’s WebEx aboard Orion for flight testing while in deep space. “Hey Alexa, play Space Odyssey!”
- Testing NASA’s Near Space Network (NSN) and Deep Space Network (DSN) communication abilities with Orion.
Artemis I Mission – Coming Back From the Moon
After Orion completes it’s mission around the Moon, it will give itself one final gravity assist at precisely the right time and shoot itself back towards Earth. Again, with no humans on board for this test flight, NASA will see just how well Orion does re-entering our atmosphere. Coming in hot at 25,000 miles per hour, our atmosphere will slow it down all the way to 300 miles per hour and that will produce over 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit of heat. Talk about the ultimate test of a spacecraft and a heat shield – 25,000 miles to 300 miles per hour – and humans are going to eventually be in this thing? Yikes.
After surviving the re-entry, Orion will have three separate parachutes at different altitudes to continue slowing it down. The first parachutes will deploy at 25,000 feet to slow it down to about 100 mph within one minute (I can imagine how smooth going from 300 mph to 100 mph within 60 seconds must feel, just kidding!). Then three pilot parachutes will bring out three main parachutes. They will slow Orion down to a mere 20 mph as it then lands within eyesight of a Navy recovery ship off the coast of San Diego, CA.
Navy amphibious specialists, Air Force weather specialists, NASA engineers and Lockheed Martin Space Operations folks all play a part in the recovery of Orion. Their jobs include the deployment of inflatable boats to bring future astronauts back to society and divers attaching cables to the Orion spacecraft to bring it back to the Navy ship for transport. They will also be retrieving the parachutes and all jettisoned parts before they sink to the bottom of the ocean.
Artemis I Mission – The Flight Test Recap
Alright ya’ll here we are. Artemis I is going to do all the tests so NASA can see what each component is capable of. Here’s a quick recap:
- The Space Launch System – will it work as designed to get Orion into space?
- Can Orion get to the Moon and be able to complete it’s scientific work?
- Will Orion survive coming back to Earth and land safely?
- Commander Campos, Helga and Zohar – will they come back safe and healthy without radiation poisoning or getting completely destroyed upon launch or re-entry?
- Can Callisto and commercial technology successfully assist future astronauts on deep space missions?
- Will NASA’s Near Space Network and Deep Space Network be successful in communicating with Orion during its mission?
Once these and many other questions are answered, NASA and all it’s partners will prepare for the next test – Artemis II. Only this time, humans will be onboard. While the Artemis II astronauts will not be stepping onto the Moon, they will be the first humans to travel farther into the solar system than humanity has ever traveled before. Their mission will be to confirm that all of Orion’s systems operate as designed with humans aboard in the actual environment of deep space.
Artemis II will then pave the way for Artemis III – with the first woman and first person of color to step foot upon our Moon.
Stay tuned. The countdown to August 29, 2022 is on.