Having launched successfully this week, NASA’s Artemis Program is live at last. Artemis-I has already provided a test for NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS)—which passed with flying colors—and the Orion spacecraft is now on the way to the Moon. It will splashdown off Baja, California on December 11, 2022.
However, Artemis-I is just the first of eight or more incredible missions to the Moon—and all but this current flight of Orion will be crewed. By 2025 we should see two astronauts land on the surface of the Moon for the first time since 1973 as the Artemis-III missions has NASA says will be land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon.
Here’s exactly what the Artemis-I, Artemis-II and Artemis-III missions and beyond will accomplish and when:
What Artemis-I will do
Artemis-1 marks the beginning of humanity’s return to the Moon. Now on its first flight and on the way to the Moon, NASA’s Orion spacecraft—together with its European Service Module (ESM)—will enter an elliptical orbit of our natural satellite and get within 21 miles of its surface. In the days after it will then get around 40,000 miles beyond it. That’s farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown. It will then return for an even closer flyby the Moon on its way home.
Lasting 25 days, Artemis-I is basically an integrated system prior to crewed flights to the Moon planned for 2024 (Artemis-II) and 2025 (Artemis-III).
Artemis-II: the first crewed mission to the Moon since 1972
After the Artemis-I mission comes Artemis-II, nominally in 2024. It will be the first crewed lunar flyby of the 21st century. Largely a crewed repeat of repeat of Artemis-1, but with have four astronauts on board to test Orion’s life support systems, Artemis-II will likely be a 10-day mission with two orbits of the Earth before going 4,600 miles beyond the far side of the Moon.
SpaceX Starship lunar test flight
In April 2021, NASA selected SpaceX to develop a human landing system variant of its Starship vehicle to take astronauts to the lunar surface during NASA’s Artemis-III mission. As part of that contract, SpaceX will conduct an uncrewed demonstration mission to the Moon prior to Artemis III.
Starship has yet to successfully complete an orbital test flight, but is expected to in 2022.
Artemis-III: two astronauts land on the Moon
Here comes the big one. The plan is to land the first woman and the first person of color on the surface of the Moon’s somewhere near its south pole, probably in 2025. It will come 53 years after the last humans to step on the lunar surface—Apollo 17 astronauts Jack Schmitt and Gene Cernan in 1972.
It’s a complex 30-day mission. During Artemis-III the Orion spacecraft will take the astronauts into lunar orbit where it will dock with an orbiting hub called the Lunar Gateway (which will have been built during five launches by private space companies under contract to NASA).
The astronauts will then board a docked SpaceX Starship vehicle for a ride down to the lunar surface. It’s likely going to be dark at the landing site, which will be within six degrees of latitude of the lunar south pole so will contain permanently shadowed regions unlike any region of the Moon previously explored by Apollo astronauts. “Several of the proposed sites within the regions are located among some of the oldest parts of the Moon, and together with the permanently shadowed regions, provide the opportunity to learn about the history of the Moon through previously unstudied lunar materials,” said Sarah Noble, Artemis lunar science lead for NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
After four spacewalks in 6.5 days, Starship would blast off and dock again with the Lunar Gateway. The crew would transfer to Orion and fly it home to Earth for splashdown.
The astronauts for Artemis-III will be selected later this year while the landing sites will be chosen after NASA identifies the mission’s target launch dates, which dictate transfer trajectories and how dark each site will be.
The Artemis Program after 2025
Further Artemis missions each year through 2030 will help build the Lunar Gateway’s habitation module. A crew will be launched to the Lunar Gateway each year or so, with robotic missions delivering lunar landers to the Lunar gateway in preparation for three astronaut descents to the lunar surface.
Artemis IV (2027)
Astronauts will help build the Lunar Gateway’s habitation module and descend to the lunar surface. NASA this week announced that it has awarded a contract extension to SpaceX to again provide its Starship vehicle for Artemis IV.
Artemis V (2028)
Astronauts will descend to the lunar surface;
Artemis VI (2029)
Astronauts will install a robotic arm on the Lunar Gateway and descend to the lunar surface;
Artemis VII (2030) and Artemis VIII (2031)
Astronauts will descend to the lunar surface on one of these missions.
“Returning astronauts to the Moon to learn, live, and work is a bold endeavor,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “With multiple planned landers, from SpaceX and future partners, NASA will be better positioned to accomplish the missions of tomorrow: conducting more science on the surface of the Moon than ever before and preparing for crewed missions to Mars.”
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.