When NASA astronauts return to the Moon in 2024, they will fly on ideas from Apollo, combined with next-generation technology impossible to achieve five decades ago. Artemis and the Lunar Gateway could make flight to the Moon — and beyond — almost commonplace in the next few decades.
NASA has their sights set on sending human travelers, once more, to the Moon, over 50 years after Apollo 11 brought Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the lunar surface as Michael Collins piloted their command module in orbit around our planetary companion.
In the last five decades, technology has made made stunning advances, but NASA learned valuable lessons from Apollo, which will be integral to returning to the Moon.
Apollo — Because no human had ever before walked on the surface of the Moon, the goal of the Apollo missions (especially Apollo 11) was to place humans on the lunar surface, and return them safely to the Earth. The astronauts on these pioneering flights also had another goal — to bring samples of the lunar surface to Earth, where they could be analyzed by researchers using ground-based equipment.
The early Apollo missions, up to the first landing on the Moon, captured the interest of people around the world. At a time when the world population was just 3.6 billion people (half the current number), more than 600 million people (roughly 17 percent of everyone on Earth) watched the launch and landing of Apollo 11.
Just over three years later in 1972, only half a million people watched the launch of the final Apollo mission. In just a few short years, the public quickly lost interest in watching astronauts travel to, and explore, our nearest planetary neighbor. Because of this waning of enthusiasm, and the enormous cost of the war in Vietnam, funding for the last three planned missions, Apollo 18, 19, and 20 were cancelled. Equipment scheduled for use on Apollo 20 was reallocated to the Skylab space station.
Artemis — The goals facing those people working on Artemis are multi-faceted. Placing people on the Moon is just a first step of this program. In addition to this lofty goal, Artemis aims to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon by 2028, preparing for a human landing on Mars in the 2030's.
The Artemis program is also designed to place the Lunar Gateway in orbit, providing the infrastructure needed to supply future missions to the Moon and Mars.
Once the Gateway is fully developed, space travelers will utilize the network to provide supplies and intermediary stops for travelers headed to other worlds. The power and propulsion systems for the Lunar Gateway are scheduled for launch by December 2022. Power and communications will be managed through the Command and Service spacecraft orbiting the Moon.
Apollo — Each of the seven attempts to place humans on the Moon during the Apollo program carried three astronauts — two to walk on the Moon and a third to pilot the command module, as it orbited our planetary companion.
Astronauts for Apollo mostly came from military backgrounds, or were test pilots. By the time Apollo was developed, most of the crews had flown during the Mercury and Gemini programs.
Of the 12 astronauts to walk on the Moon, just one, Harrison Schmitt, was a scientist.
The crew for each on these journeys to the Moon consisted entirely of Caucasian, American males. So far, 12 people have walked on the Moon, but no woman, no person of color, and no one from outside the United States has ever set their boots on the lunar surface.
Artemis — The next generation of spacecraft is designed to bring up to four passengers to the Moon. Now, with significant experience in long-duration spaceflight aboard the International Space Station, the Artemis astronauts are likely to have significant experience living in space.
With previous spaceflight experience, the crews aboard Artemis will be able to utilize previous training to carry out their mission.
In addition, the candidate pool from which NASA is selecting the Artemis astronauts contains a number of scientists.
NASA officials have stated that not only they will select a woman to travel to the Moon during Artemis 3, but that crew — or future crews — may consist entirely of women.
In order to successfully place a new generation of astronauts on the Moon, NASA and private contractors are hard at work, developing new technology and procedures to bring travelers to the Moon quickly, while still ensuring the greatest degree of safety possible. As part of this goal, the Gateway is designed to make spaceflight easier and safer for people traveling to the Moon and Mars in the future.
In April 2019, NASA selected 12 new projects to be included on the Artemis spacecraft, designed to study the health of astronauts as the carry out their missions to the Moon. The following month, the space agency gave a green light to 142 proposals for new technology designed for space programs to other worlds, beginning with the return of human beings to the lunar surface.
“Many of these selected projects have direct applications to Artemis and other future human exploration endeavors. For example, the technology behind solar panels that deploy like Venetian blinds can be used as a surface power source for crewed missions on the Moon and Mars,” NASA explains.
While the Apollo missions aimed for areas of the Moon where boulders were thought to present little danger to astronauts, the Artemis landings will aim for the south pole of the Moon, where water is thought to hide deep in dark craters.
Although this region of the Moon may not be as safe as the locations chosen for the Apollo missions, it is essential for the future of human spaceflight to explore the lunar polar regions where water ice may be found. Currently, several nations and private organizations around the world are racing to place robotic and human explorers at the south pole of the Moon. China has announced plans to construct a permanent lunar colony within the next decades.
Lunar ice can be melted into water for drinking, and can also easily be processed into breathable oxygen. Both hydrogen and oxygen can be extracted from the ice for use as rocket fuel. These storehouses of water, if they are easily accessible, will make the human colonization of other worlds of the Solar System significantly easier.
Apollo — At the dawn of the Apollo, the program was rocked by tragedy as three astronauts perished in the tragic fire during testing of the spacecraft. Once NASA uncovered the problems which led to the Apollo 1 fire, the space agency used each mission to test plans to land people on the Moon by the end of the 1960’s, fulfilling the goal set for them by John Kennedy.
Docking procedures, including those needed to mate the lander with the command module as astronauts visited the Moon, were perfected during later Apollo flights, leading to the triumphant landing on the lunar surface by Apollo 11.
Launched December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 became the first crewed spacecraft to ever leave low-Earth orbit, carrying Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders to an orbit around the Moon for the first time. Just over six months later, Armstrong and Aldrin would place their boots on the surface of the Moon.
Artemis — Like Apollo, the Artemis program will build up the skills needed during each step of the process in a series of missions.
The first of these missions, Artemis 1, will be an automated flight, testing systems for human crews. The Orion spacecraft will launch aboard the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for the first time. Liftoff is scheduled to take place from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
In November 2019, the last of four powerful RS-25 engines was attached to an SLS rocket, preparing the vehicle for launch. These are the same design that was used during the Space Shuttle program.
At launch, the engines of the SLS rocket will together produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust, lifting the six-million-pound launch vehicle beyond the confines of the Earth.
The SLS is the first launch vehicle NASA has built since the Saturn 5 capable of carrying human travelers beyond low Earth orbit.
After launch, the SLS will experience its greatest aerodynamic stress within 90 seconds. Then, the boosters will separate from the launch vehicle, service module panels will be sloughed off, together with the launch abort system. The core engines will shut down, and the core stage will separate from the spacecraft.
Following its long journey to the Moon, Orion will come within 100 km (62) miles of the lunar surface. Then, using a gravitational assist from the Moon, the spacecraft will move into a retrograde orbit, 70,000 km (40,000 miles) from our planetary companion.
“For its return trip to Earth, Orion will do another close flyby that takes the spacecraft within about 60 miles of the Moon’s surface, the spacecraft will use another precisely timed engine firing of the European-provided service module in conjunction with the Moon’s gravity to accelerate back toward Earth,” NASA describes.
The Future of Artemis
Following the automated flight of Artemis 1, the Artemis 2 launch in 2022 is set to test the launch system with a human crew, and to place rovers on the Moon. These automated explorers will search the lunar surface for water and other resources essential for the human colonization of our planetary companion.
In 2023, NASA will add a cabin to the power and propulsion system of the lunar gateway. This structure will launch aboard a private spacecraft, rather than a SLS rocket.
The following year, the Human Landing system will be launched (in stages) to the Moon, to be assembled in lunar orbit. Once construction is complete, the system will be connected to the Lunar Gateway, preparing to bring astronauts to their ultimate destination.
“NASA’s Space Launch System will send Orion and its crew to lunar orbit, where it will dock at the Gateway. The crew will check out the Gateway cabin and Human Landing System before boarding the lander to ride down to the Moon,” NASA explains.
When Artemis 3 takes off to the Moon (a launch currently scheduled for 2024), the mission will make history, returning humans to the lunar surface for the first time in more than 50 years, and placing the first woman ever on its dusty terrain.
Over the next four years, NASA plans to launch one mission a year to the Moon, starting with Artemis 4 in 2025, and following through to the launch of Artemis 7 in 2028.
The space agency hopes to establish a sustainable human habitation of the Moon by the year 2028, with a goal of landing people on Mars during the 2030's.
Apollo — the command module for the Apollo missions, designed and manufactured by North American Rockwell, carried a pair of astronauts to the Moon during each successful mission of the program. Measuring just 3.2 meters (10 feet 7 inches) high, and 3.9 meters (12 feet 10 inches) wide, this spacecraft, weighing 5,900 kilograms (13,000 pounds) was based on earlier capsules successfully used during the Mercury and Gemini flights.
Following their journey to the Moon, Apollo astronauts boarded the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) for their landing on the lunar surface.
Preparing for their return to Earth, astronauts lifted off from the lunar surface as they sat inside the upper half of the LEM, leaving the base of the vehicle behind. Aboard their spacecraft, the returning astronauts mated with the command module before heading back to Earth.
Once near our home planet, the LEM was jettisoned, before space travelers utilized the command module to travel through the atmosphere of the Earth, before touching down in the ocean to be recovered by sailors.
Artemis — The Orion spacecraft is already a survivor. Originally designed as part of the Constellation program, it was cancelled by President Barack Obama in 2011, just as the Space Shuttle program was retired. Orion would have launched aboard an Ares rocket, a booster planned to lift the capsule into space. When Obama nixed the nine billion dollar program, Orion found itself on the scrapheap, and the American space program was left without a means to travel to space.
Although the planned Ares rockets (which would have consisted of two boosters for different missions) was cancelled, Orion rose like a phoenix from the flames, being selected as the spacecraft launched on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket currently being built for Artemis.
The Orion spacecraft will be home to up to six astronauts, twice the capacity of the Apollo command module. The spacecraft will consist of two parts — the capsule and service module.
Together, these elements are eight meters (26 feet) long, and 5 meters (16.5 feet) wide, providing almost nine cubic meters (316 cubic feet) of living space for those headed to the Moon. Although this is not a large amount of space, it is still 50 percent more than was afforded to the crews of Apollo.
The spacecraft has flown just once before — on December 5, 2014 — launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket. The vehicle flew safely for 5,800 km (3,600 miles) before landing in the Pacific Ocean.
Space is a dangerous place, and NASA has not been immune to the tragic losses of crews during spaceflight. With safety in mind, Artemis (like Apollo) is designed with a launch abort system, powered by escape rockets, to help ensure a safe journey to space.
Apollo — Saturn V was a crowning achievement of its age. Less than 70 years after the Wright brothers first lifted off at Kitty Hawk, this rocket — and the people who built it — sent a dozen astronauts to the Moon.
At the time it was built, the Saturn V was far and away the most powerful rocket ever designed. Its first flight, on November 4, 1967, lifted the Apollo 4 mission to space.
The engines of the Saturn V consumed more than 18,000 kg (40,000 pounds) of fuel every second, during roughly two minutes of launch. By comparison, during his historic trip across the Atlantic, Charles Lindbergh burned just more then 200 kg (450 pounds) of fuel.
Originally conceived in January 1961 as the C-5 rocket, development of the Saturn V was led by Wernher von Braun, who had led rocket development for Germany during the Second World War.
The NASA head usually insisted on testing each part of a rocket separably before bringing segments together. However, the extremely ambitious schedule needed to meet Kennedy’s goal of landing a person on the Moon by the end of the 1960’s required NASA to carry out the maiden launch of the rocket before testing was completed to the standards of the German-born engineer. The first test, the flight of Apollo 4, was successful.
Artemis— Powered by its four main RS-25 engines, the Space Launch System will be the most powerful rocket in history, surpassing even the mighty Saturn V utilized during the Apollo missions. Several configurations of the rocket will be possible, allowing the launch vehicle to be used for various payloads and destinations.
“The initial configuration of SLS can send more than 26 metric tons (57,000 pounds) to the Moon, and future upgrades will enable the rocket to send at least 45 metric tons (99,000 pounds). Towering a staggering 322 feet tall, taller than the Statue of Liberty, SLS will weigh 5.75 million pounds and produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, 15 percent more thrust than the Saturn V rocket,” NASA reports.
Aiding the SLS on its journey to space, a pair of next-generation solid rocket boosters will help power the rocket to space. Every second each booster will burn six tons of solid propellant, producing 3.6 million pounds of thrust, greater than the amount of power delivered by 14 Boeing 747 engines at takeoff.
“The SLS core stage is powered by four RS-25 engines. Each RS-25 engine is about the size of a compact car and weighs about 8,000 pounds. The core stage towers more than 200 feet tall and holds 196,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and 537,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen,” NASA officials explain.
After shedding its first stage, the upper stage of the SLS will be powered by JX-2 engines, a smaller, cheaper engine originally designed for the Ares rocket.
The SLS, standing 98 meters (321 feet) tall, will weigh 2.5 million kilograms (5.5 million pounds) at liftoff.
A liquid hydrogen tank, similar to the ones used on the Space Shuttle, will hold. 733,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen, feeding the massive engines. Depending on the configuration used for a given flight, the rocket will be able to produce 10 to 20 percent more thrust than the five engines that powered the Saturn V rockets.
Apollo — In ancient Greek mythology, Apollo was the son of Zeus (the God of Thunder) and Leto.
Apollo was the god of prophecy for the ancient Greeks, as well as music, song, poetry, and archery. He was also the god of plagues and healing. Typically, Apollo was depicted as a young, handsome, clean-shaven man, carrying a bow and quiver of arrows.
During the height of Greece, Apollo was worshiped by cults in both Delphi and Delos.
Artemis — The twin sister of Apollo, Artemis, was Goddess of the Moon and hunting in Greek mythology. She was said to deliver aid to women during childbirth, but she also delivered instant death with her arrows. Artemis could turn herself and others into animals, and she used nature to cure disease.
Many versions of the ancient tale of her life say that Artemis was born just before her twin brother, and helped her mother deliver Apollo just minutes after being born.
Myth tells that Apollo, upset that Artemis was spending a lot of time with the hunter Orion, challenged his sister to an archery contest. Apollo pointed out a distant target on the horizon, challenging Artemis to shoot it. Only after successfully striking her target did Artemis learned she had killed the hunter.
Artemis was powerful and talented, blessed with perfect aim and the ability to adapt, like the SLS rocket and the people who will help Artemis crews soar through space, on their way to the Moon.
It is more than fitting that the first mission to place a woman on the lunar surface would be named after Artemis — a strong, capable goddess worthy of an enduring legend to be forever tied with the Moon.
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