“Houston, Shackleton Base here. Artemis 3 has landed.”
In 2024, if all goes to plan, two astronauts will touchdown at the Moon’s South Pole; the first moonwalkers of the 21st century will step foot where no human has ever been before. The landing will also put the first woman on the Moon, and the next man. By then it will be 55 years since Apollo 11’s pioneering mission to land men on the moon and, just as poignantly, 52 years since Apollo 17’s late Gene Cernan was the last human to walk on the moon.
So why “Artemis 3”? We know why it’s going to be called Artemis; that’s the name of the twin sister of Apollo, the goddess of Moon in ancient Greek religion and myth.
We also know it’s going to aim for Shackleton Crater at the lunar South Pole, where water ice is present. That could make a permanent moonbase possible. It’s also the largest impact in the solar system.
Like the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, which built up and demonstrated their capabilities over a series of missions, Artemis will do the same, and details of the first three missions are already public.
Here’s the timeline for the Artemis program, which has the goal of returning two astronauts to the lunar surface “in a sustainable way” to prepare for sending astronauts to Mars for the first time ever.
What is Artemis 1?
Formerly known as Exploration Mission-1, the Artemis 1 mission will be an uncrewed flight of NASA’s Lockheed Martin-made Orion spacecraft, Orion’s European Service Module (ESM), and its Boeing-led Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. A three-week flight launching from Launch Complex 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Artemis 1 will launch, orbit the Earth, then Orion and the ESM will travel to the Moon to an orbit that takes it from 62 miles above its surface to 40,000 miles beyond the Moon. Artemis 1 is designed to test all the hardware and operations. It will splashdown off Baja, California.
“This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis 1 mission manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It will blaze a trail that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission.”
What is Artemis 2?
The Apollo 8 of the Artemis missions, Artemis 2 will be the first of these missions to the Moon with astronauts on board. Although taking a different trajectory to Artemis 1, this crewed test flight of the SLS and Orion will test Orion’s life support systems with four astronauts aboard on a 21-day mission. After launch from Launch Complex 39B, Artemis 2 will orbit Earth twice, move into a highly elliptical orbit and then go for translunar injection 24 hours later. Artemis 2 will be a lunar flyby, not a landing, and will be on a free trajectory return to Earth, where it will splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
What is Artemis 3?
Artemis 3 is what it’s all about, but details are relatively sketchy. We know it will be the second crewed mission of the Artemis program, and the first crewed lunar landing since Apollo 17 in 1972. It will be a mission lasting less than 30 days, and involve a short rendezvous of the Orion capsule with NASA’s embryonic Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a space station in lunar orbit that will, by then, have been pieced together during five launches by private space companies under contract to NASA.
It’s hoped that by 2024 the moon station will consist of a power and propulsion element, as well as a small habitat module and a port for Orion to dock. After that rendezvous, two of the astronauts in Artemis 3 will descend to the surface on a lander, likely to investigate Shackleton Crater at the South Pole. The plan is for the site to have already been explored by robotic missions, so the astronauts will be able to “leverage infrastructure left behind by previous missions.” Like the Apollo missions, part of the lander will stay on the Moon and another will take-off back to the moon station, before a trip back to Earth in the Orion capsule.
Artemis 4 to Artemis 8
It’s hoped that NASA will have a “sustained presence” on or around the Moon by 2028. So after that first moon landing, the Artemis program will send a crew up to the Lunar Gateway each year or so, with robotic missions delivering lunar landers to the Lunar gateway in preparation:
Artemis 4 (late 2025): astronauts will help build the Lunar Gateway’s habitation module and descend to the lunar surface
Artemis 5 (late 2026): astronauts will descend to the lunar surface
Artemis 6 (late 2027): astronauts will install a robotic arm on the Lunar Gateway and descend to the lunar surface
Artemis 7 (early 2028) & Artemis 8 (late 2028): astronauts will descend to the lunar surface on one of these missions
“Similar to the 1960s, we too have an opportunity to take a giant leap forward for all of humanity,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on Saturday at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He also announced the completion of NASA’s Orion crew capsule for the first Artemis lunar mission. “Thanks to the hard work of the men and women of NASA, and of American industry, the Orion crew vehicle for the Artemis 1 mission is complete and ready to begin preparations for its historic first flight,” said Vice President Pence.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes