It’s finally happening. After years of planning, designing, building, engineering, and testing, NASA’s Artemis I mission is scheduled to lift off Monday on a historic journey to the moon.
“We are go for launch,” NASA associate administrator Robert Cabana told reporters Monday, following a successful Flight Readiness Review. “This day has been a long time coming.”
As Mike Sarafin, Artemis mission manager put it: “Getting your license to fly represents a milestone.”
Excitement surrounding the launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center has been building as it will mark the first time in nearly 50 years that a spacecraft designed to carry humans will attempt to travel to lunar orbit. But Cabana urged people to keep the mission in perspective.
“This is a test flight, alright? And it is not without risk.”
When Artemis I lifts off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39B, it will be carrying the Orion spacecraft. Inside Orion’s capsule will be scientifically engineered mannequins—nicknamed Moonikins—designed to replicate real astronauts and gather data to prepare for the first crewed Artemis mission, tentatively expected as soon as 2024.
Although Cabana said the mission risks have been analyzed and mitigated as much as possible, he also pointed out that NASA plans to push the Orion spacecraft “beyond what it was actually designed for in preparation for sending it to the moon with a crew.”
He said, “We want to make sure that it works absolutely perfectly when we do that, and that we understand all the risks….We’re going to learn a lot from this test flight.”
Cabana warned that there “are certain cases that could come up that could cause us to come home early. And that’s OK. We have contingencies in place.” A main objective of the mission will come during reentry, when stresses from high velocity and extreme temperatures will put Orion’s heat shield to the test.
— Jim Free (@JimFree) August 23, 2022
Thursday, meteorologists with the U.S. Space Force predicted a 70 percent chance of favorable weather conditions at launch time, and final preparations for the mission are expected to continue through the weekend.
Pilots may recognize some of the manufacturers involved in the massive project, including familiar OEMs like Honeywell (NASDAQ: HON), Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT), and Boeing (NYSE: BA). Honeywell is responsible for guidance and navigation systems aboard Artemis I as well as core flight software, command data handling, and displays and controls. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion, while prime contractors for the Artemis Space Launch System (SLS) rocket booster include Aerojet Rocketdyne (NYSE: AJRD), Boeing, and Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC).
This first mission of NASA’s larger Artemis Program is nothing short of historic. The initial flights are aimed at not only returning humans to the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972, but landing crews will include the first woman astronaut and person of color.
Artemis was conceived to create a pathway toward long term exploration of the moon and Mars. If successful, Artemis could be laying the groundwork for humans to someday become an interplanetary species, establishing a colony and living on Mars.
Although the first mission hasn’t yet launched, NASA is already focusing on future lunar landing locations. Last week, the agency revealed 13 possible touchdown sites for Artemis III, near the moon’s South Pole.
Artemis I took the stage last week, as it slowly emerged from KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). With Orion stacked on top of the SLS booster, a baseball-field sized crawler-transporter rolled the 322-foot tall rocket and spacecraft the 4.2 miles from the VAB to the launch pad.
This mission will also make history as the first launch of SLS—NASA’s most powerful rocket. SLS is expected to produce an enormous 8.8 million pounds of maximum thrust as it pushes Orion toward the moon, before falling back into the ocean.
During the 42-day mission, Orion is expected to spend six days in lunar orbit, gathering performance data. As it performs a highly stable trajectory called a distant retrograde orbit (DRO)—Orion will set a record for the farthest distance traveled away from Earth by a spacecraft designed for humans—about 240,000 miles.
Getting Past Hurdles
Like many ambitious NASA projects before it, Artemis I has been beset by delays, including a pause in assembly that was blamed on a malfunctioning engine controller that had to be replaced. Next, the “wet dress rehearsal”—a rocket fueling test on the launch pad—was troubled by temperature limit issues, faulty core stage valves, and propellant leaks.
Throughout the assembly and other preparations, NASA officials said these kinds of glitches were expected for a new rocket booster system and spacecraft, and they welcomed the opportunity to work the problems and learn from them, to prevent similar issues on future missions.
Sending Humans Back to the Moon
Although Artemis astronauts have already been chosen for the program, no astronauts have been assigned yet to any future Artemis missions. So far, there are 18 Artemis astronauts, including Jessica Watkins, who is now aboard the orbiting International Space Station. Earlier this summer, the space agency also opened up eligibility to all active NASA astronauts.
The first crewed mission would be Artemis II—expected to circle the moon. Then, if all goes as planned, sometime in 2025 or 2026, Artemis III astronauts will be the first to step on the lunar surface since December 1972.
However, before any of that happens, NASA needs to prove the equipment works as advertised. The uncrewed Artemis I Orion capsule is expected to return to Earth this October 10. As it hurtles toward Earth it will be traveling faster and hotter than any previous spacecraft built for humans. Splashdown is planned in the Pacific, off San Diego, California.
If all goes well, the 1.3-million-mile mission will bring humans one step closer to returning to the moon, and perhaps someday, the Red Planet.