“We rise together back to the moon and beyond!” a NASA commentator exclaimed to more than three hundred thousand viewers worldwide at 1:47 a.m. EST on November 16. Together they watched as NASA’s new moon rocket lifted off launchpad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center, marking the official beginning of the Artemis chapter in lunar exploration.
The Artemis Program, formally established in 2017 under the Trump Administration, is NASA’s long awaited response to its hiatus in human space exploration. The program’s namesake, Artemis, is the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology. The program’s slogan, “We Are Going,” also has origins in John F. Kennedy’s famous “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech from the Apollo program. The name and slogan, however, are where the similarities between the Artemis program and the Apollo program end.
The first noticeable difference between the two missions is the launch vehicle. The Apollo missions launched on the Saturn V rocket, previously the most powerful rocket ever launched. The Artemis Program, on the other hand, is carried out by a rocket with a more modest name: the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS consists of two 17-story-tall solid rocket boosters, which will provide 7.2 million pounds of thrust and burn for the first two minutes. The boosters are attached to a 212 feet core stage that holds 2.3 million pounds of liquid fuel and is powered by four RS-25 engines. Combined, the two stages will accelerate the rocket to 27200 kilometers per hour (16900 miles per hour), the lowest speed needed for an Earth orbit. The Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage above the core stage will then raise the rocket to a higher Earth orbit before propelling it to intercept the orbit of the Moon roughly four days later.
Once the spacecraft launched from the SLS, the Orion, reaches the Moon, instead of landing, it docks with Gateway. Gateway is NASA’s new lunar station, which will be ready in a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the moon by November 2024. The NRHO, a stable three body orbit, will bring the Gateway alternately close to and far away from the Moon, facilitating orbital maneuvers that allow landings on any part of the Moon. A set up lunar lander on the Gateway will then travel with the astronauts to and from the lunar surface before they dock again with the Gateway and return to Earth on the Orion, splashing down with parachutes.
While the Apollo mission left humanity’s first footsteps on interplanetary soil, the Artemis mission, with its modularity and flexibility, is laying the groundwork for far more ambitious projects on the Moon. In the future, NASA plans to launch to Mars from Gateway at one-fifth the escape velocity of the Earth or harvest lunar water and fission materials for use on Earth.
The launch on November 16 was the first uncrewed test flight of the SLS. The goal of it is to stress test the Orion by taking it on a 26-day journey to the Moon and back. If successful, this test could hurry the possibilities of crewed lunar missions as early as 2024 and finished lunar outposts by the end of the decade. These endeavors will push humans to new frontiers in engineering. When interviewed about the possibility of building a lunar base, science faculty member Brad Moriarty said, “I think having an eventual lunar base will allow NASA to evaluate a few situations that I am curious about. First is the matter of protecting the structure and equipment from micro meteorite impacts. These small-but-high-velocity objects can cause significant damage to and possibly rupture the atmosphere containment systems of a moon base. Second is the human need for light, particularly sunlight or broad spectrum light on a daily basis. Since the moon faces the earth, its ‘day-night’ cycle is much longer than on Earth, so some kind of solution will be needed to provide daily light.” These are just some of the questions that we have yet to answer.
Humanity has long stared at the Moon and pondered life beyond our blue planet. Nowadays, we need the Moon more than ever, not to prove the right and wrong of different ideologies, nor to plant a “banner of freedom and peace,” but to unify and consolidate humanity’s dream for exploring the cosmos. This time, we are not only choosing to go to the Moon but also choosing to stay.