On November 14, NASA is set to launch the uncrewed Artemis I flight test to the Moon and back. Artemis I is the first integrated flight test of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the Orion spacecraft, and Exploration Ground Systems at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. These are the same systems that will bring future Artemis astronauts to the Moon.
The Orion spacecraft is designed to carry astronauts on deep space missions farther than ever before. Orion contains the habitable volume of about two minivans, enough living space for four people for up to 21 days. Future astronauts will be able to prepare food, exercise, and yes, have a bathroom. Orion also has a launch abort system to keep astronauts safe if an emergency happens during launch and a European-built service module that fuels and propels the spacecraft.
While the Artemis I flight test is uncrewed, the Orion spacecraft will not be empty: there will be three manikins aboard the vehicle. Commander Moonikin Campos will be sitting in the commander’s seat, collecting data on the vibrations and accelerations future astronauts will experience on the journey to the Moon. He is joined by two phantom torsos, Helga and Zohar, in a partnership with the German Aerospace Center and Israeli Space Agency to test a radiation protection vest.
What’s the mission?
After lift-off, the Orion capsule and its Service Module, built by the European Space Agency (ESA), will go into Earth orbit and the solar panels will deploy. Then, about 90 minutes into the mission, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) will light up for about 20 minutes. That’s a trans-lunar injection (TLI), the rocket burn that will propel Orion out of Earth orbit and on its way to the Moon. After TLI, the ICPS will be jettisoned, and Artemis 1 will be on its way for a four-day journey to the Moon. Along the way, it will launch 10 CubeSats — small, inexpensive satellites — with research targets ranging from studying lunar water ice to measuring deep-space radiation.
As Orion approaches the Moon on its sixth day in space, it will make a flyby of the Moon, swooping to within 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the lunar surface. As it does so, it will fire its rockets — but not to slow down. Instead, it will boost its momentum to carry it further from the Moon toward its eventual lunar orbit.
That’s because unlike Apollo missions, which kept to a tight, near-circular orbit around the Moon, Artemis 1 will use a much wider orbit called a distant retrograde orbit (DRO). (“Retrograde” means the craft will be orbiting in the opposite direction that the Moon orbits the Earth.)
On the mission’s tenth day, Artemis will fire its engines again — this time to slow down and finally enter DRO, where it will stay for 16 days. While in this orbit, Orion will venture farther into space than any human-rated craft in history. The most distant point of its orbit will be 40,000 miles (64,000 km) beyond the Moon’s far side, breaking the record held by Apollo 13.
But why are we going back to the Moon anyway? We’ve been there, right?
Finding water on the Moon has the potential to be a game-changer. NASA’s current mantra for crewed exploration is “Moon to Mars.” By utilizing water ice on the Moon, NASA hopes to learn how to “live off the land” in an environment with a lot of radiation, vast differences in temperature, nasty dust, and more — training ground for living on Mars.
Some are advocating astronauts settle down in lunar lava pits, shielded from many of those hazards. It would be a high-tech return to our species’ cave-dwelling roots as we plan forays to the Red Planet, perhaps fueled by lunar ice turned into rocket fuel.
But NASA’s goals aren’t just settlement — they’re also scientific. The Moon’s water harbors clues to the ancient past of our solar system and the surface offers places for special kinds of work. The far side is perfect for radio astronomy. Shielded from the Earth, it’s very, very quiet there.
NASA is not alone in this Moon rush. Private companies are sending robotic missions. And Russia and China are collaborating on plans for a Moon base and space station. China is pushing ahead, having demonstrated real chops at developing a serious program of space exploration. It’s not quite the Cold War, but it’s gotten Washington’s attention.
How can I follow the mission?
Your best bet is NASA TV, which will begin coverage a couple of hours ahead of the first launch window. You can find it on NASA’s website and on YouTube. NASA will also cover Orion’s first outbound trajectory burn later that night; a full schedule of the planned programming is on NASA’s site.