Artemis I, back to the moon – Focus.it

In a few weeks, if there are no further postponements, Artemis I will start. NASA has communicated 3 launch windows: August 29, September 2 and September 5. This is a very important mission: the first of artemis program that will bring the United States and its allies (including Europe, with Italy) back to the moon.

However, Artemis is not just the continuation of the Apollo program (even if Artemis, unsurprisingly, in Greek mythology is the sister of Apollo, son of Zeus). “With Artemis, we’re not just going back to the moon,” said Jeremy Parsons, deputy manager of the Artemis I Earth Exploration Systems Program at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. “Our final destination is Mars. We will go explore parts of the Moon that we have never seen and learn to live in space. We want to understand how to use lunar resources to create tools, energy, food. The ultimate goal is to go further, where we have never gone before.”

Half a century later. It is a moment we have been waiting for almost fifty years. Exactly since December 19, 1972, when the Apollo 17 mission ended. A few days earlier, Commander Eugene Cernan, starting from the lunar soil had said: “… We leave the Moon as we found it and, God willing, how we will find it again when we return, with peace and hope for all humanity”. It was thought, in a few months. But, upon his return, Cernan and his companions discovered that Apollo 17 would be the last chapter of the project, and they were the last humans to set foot on the Moon. High costs and the Vietnam War had dampened enthusiasm for space. The Apollo project ended quietly and without too many jokes.

But now the return to the Moon is near: a new generation of astronauts is about to set foot on it. But not with this first mission, which will happen unstaffed and it will serve for test main components for a goal that in perspective will not be reduced to hit-and-run trips like for Apollo. The goal, on the moon, is to stay there.

However, the difficulties of creating a terrestrial colony in an environment without water and without an atmosphere are enormous; for this the space agencies have opted for a “puzzle” strategy. Each mission will insert a piece, and Artemis I is the first piece of this puzzle. It will last about three weeks and will allow some fundamental components to be tested in the field: for example, the thermal shield of the command module (the one that will contain the astronauts in later missions). During the return to Earth, the shield will be subjected to a temperature of more than two thousand degrees.

Three, two, one… GO! In general, for a mission to the Moon and to descend to its surface, three fundamental components are needed: a rocket (because you have to get to the Moon), a spacecraft (that accommodates the astronauts in the safest and most comfortable way possible ) and a lander, the equivalent of the famous Lem of the Apollo missions. In that case, the rocket was the Saturn V and the spacecraft was called the command module; for Artemis the rocket is called the Space Launch System, or more simply Sls, and the Orion spacecraft, after the Orion constellation.

The SLS, defined by NASA as “the most powerful rocket in the world”, is a 98-meter-high colossus whose development has cost, from 2011 to today, more than 23,000 million dollars. “SLS is a pachyderm,” says Elkin Norena, SLS resident manager at the Kennedy Space Center. “It will be the most powerful rocket in history and will have 50% more thrust than the Saturn V. At launch, it will be capable of producing almost 4,000 tons of thrust. Seeing it take off will be an incredible sight.”

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The Space Launch System, the massive NASA launcher used by the Artemis program.
© NASA / Focus

On launch day, six seconds after liftoff, its four RS-25 main engines will start. And you might be surprised to learn that these motors are recycled. They are the (retrofitted) “remains” of the space shuttle engines, the space shuttles that retired in 2011 and have flown the shuttles multiple times. Their reuse is due both to the need to reduce costs and to the fact that they have proven to be excellent. “They are very reliable. We have used this type of engine for 135 missions, and we know how it works”, adds Norena. “Going to space is difficult. When you invent something new you have to try it a thousand times before putting it into orbit. If you have something reliable in your hands that you know can do it for you, you don’t have to reinvent everything from scratch.” After the countdown is over, the two side boosters, solid-propellant auxiliary rockets, will also fire for about 20 seconds; some of its parts are also leftovers from the Shuttle program.

The Orion spacecraft. Sixty seconds after launch, the SLS will already be 18 kilometers above the troposphere, and once in orbit, the Orion capsule, located on top, will be released. The Orion is made up of two main segments: the first is the service module, made in Europe, which is used to propel and control the spacecraft and to supply electricity (obtained thanks to solar panels). It is also the “cellar” to store water and air for the astronauts. The second is the command module, where the crew will be located on future missions. It is just these two modules that will make the Earth-Moon trip, where the Orion will make a few orbits close to the lunar surface (technically they are called fly by) and other wider ones. And after about six days she will be back on her way home.

Once back near Earth, the service module will separate from the command module, which will enter the atmosphere at 25,000 miles per hour, then open its parachute, slow down and land. Of the SLS’s 98 meters at the start, only the Orion command module, just over 3 meters high, will return to Earth, landing off San Diego in the Pacific.


The Orion capsule. At the top is the command module and below it is the service module. Italy also participated in its construction thanks to Asi and Leonardo (see box below).
©NASA

The following steps. The Artemis program, after the first step that we are about to witness, will be structured in multiple missions that should extend until 2030 and beyond.

The three already approved are Artemis I, Artemis II (originally scheduled for 2023 but postponed to 2024), and Artemis III, now scheduled no sooner than 2025. Artemis II will be the equivalent of Apollo 8, the first crewed mission it achieved. the moon but did not descend to its surface. So also the crew of Artemis II will make a brief tour around our satellite, without landing on the moon.

After these general tests, NASA points to the first moon landing in half a century with Artemis III, which will in effect be the version millennials Apollo 11: The crew will land on the Moon for a week. Although the third essential element for human missions, the lunar lander, does not exist to this day. Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX should realize this, which won a tender launched by NASA by defeating, among others, a consortium led by Blue Origin, the company of the other tycoon Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon. Following an appeal from the latter, the transfer was confirmed last November to SpaceX, which is expected to build a version of its Starship spacecraft, currently in testing.

The orbital base. Artemis III will also mark the start of construction of the Lunar Gateway, one of the most sci-fi novelties of the entire project. The Gateway will be a port in orbit around our satellite where spacecraft can dock and take over. From there you can descend to the lunar surface and rise again. A space ship, probably the Starship, will act as an “elevator”. And once they land, the astronauts will use lunar jeeps to reach Base Camp Artemis, the permanent base located at the south pole.

All this, however, will come towards the end of the decade. The construction of the Gateway is expected to start no earlier than 2026, but this is also an optimistic forecast. The Trump administration in 2019 pushed NASA to schedule Artemis III in 2024, both to assert US supremacy over China, which at the time had just announced its intention to land on the Moon by 2030 (v. box next to), and because Trump, hoping to be re-elected, could see the man back on the moon at the end of his second term. But NASA has officially declared that Artemis III will not arrive before 2025.

First name Goal Duration Date
expected

Artemis I

unmanned flyby of the moon

3 weeks

September 2022

Artemis II

Crewed flyby

10 days

May 2024

Artemis III

Crewed landing (with at least one woman)

4 weeks

not until 2025

Artemis IV

Sending a crew on the Gateway

4 weeks

March 2026

Artemis VX

Crews on the moon for increasingly longer periods, building a lunar base

to define

2027 – 2032

Artemides generation. If we think about how much the Apollo missions have influenced the generation that lived through them, it is not difficult to understand that Artemis could have an even greater impact, thanks also to social networks that will make the experience more immediate. It is no coincidence that NASA has coined the expression “Artemis Generation” to refer to the boys and girls who will grow up with the image of the new astronauts who will populate the Moon. “I have two daughters aged seven and nine,” concludes Jeremy Parsons, “and I love the idea that in a few years they will be able to see astronauts land on the moon, knowing that in the future they could be among them. It makes me proud of what we’re doing.” The Artemis Generation will be the generation of space engineers and astronauts, they will travel between the Earth and the Moon as we travel between Rome and New York and Orion will be their Red Arrow. And they will be the first human beings to be defined as “extraplanetary”.

Emma Gatti for Focus

An earlier version of this article was published in Focus in January 2022.


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