A new NASA rocket is about to take off for a historic mission to the moon. The Artemis I mission will not land on the lunar surface, but the journey itself will be the furthest a vehicle designed for human astronauts ever been in space.
There will be no humans on NASA’s big journey, but there will be three astronauts: Helga, Zohar and Moonikin Campos. They’re high-tech manikins – that’s the term for human models used in scientific research — filled with sensors that will test how the human body responds to space travel. Helga and Zohar are designed to measure the effects of radiation on the bodies of women in space, and Moonikin Campos will sit in the commander’s chair to keep track of how bumpy a trip to the moon can be for future human crew members. While these manikins may not look all that impressive on their own, they will play a vital role in NASA’s ambitions to build a new road to the moon and eventually send astronauts to Mars. They’re also just one of many science experiments aboard the mission designed to improve our understanding of space travel.
The Artemis I mission begins Monday morning at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA is currently targeting a launch window between 8:33 AM and 10:33 AM ET. At that time, the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful missile NASA once built, will take off and carry the Orion spacecraft on its nose. Once the vehicle leaves orbit, Orion will travel around the moon, and then thousands of miles away, before turning around and returning to Earth – a 1.3 million mile journey that will take 42 days. You can watch the start herestarting Monday at 6:30 a.m. ET.
“This is a good demonstration that the rocket is working as it should,” Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor in the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, told Recode. “It will give NASA a little more confidence for manned missions in the years to come.”
Artemis is the next generation of lunar missions. It’s part of NASA’s wider ambitions for lunar exploration, which include astronaut tours of the lunar surface, a lunar human habitatand a new space station called gate. Artemis I is also laying the groundwork for the next two missions in the Artemis program: Artemis 2 will send humans on a similar journey around the moon in 2024, and Artemis 3 will make history by landing the first woman and first person of color. sometime in 2025 on the lunar surface at the earliest. All of the research taking place on Artemis I — including Helga, Zohar, and Moonikin Campos — is aimed at preparing for those later missions.
All aboard Artemis 1
NASA’s ride to the moon, the SLS, was designed to carry an extremely heavy payload. The rocket is only a few meters higher than the statue of Libertyand it can generate 8.8 million pounds of thrust. Like other launch systems, the SLS consists of several stages, each of which plays a role in overcoming Earth’s gravity, breaking through the atmosphere and reaching space. To make that possible, the SLS includes: double solid rocket boostersas well as a 212 feet high core stage filled with over 700,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. To be the largest core phase NASA has ever made.
After takeoff, the boosters will fire for about 2 minutes before breaking free from the vehicle, falling back to the ground and landing in the Atlantic Ocean. Eight minutes later, the core phase will do the same. At that point, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) will take over and circle the Earth once. About 90 minutes after the flight, the ICPS Orion gives the “big push” it should start flying toward the moon and then fall away.
Although technically new, the SLS is based on older technology. Several of its components, including: are main engines, originate from or are based on systems used by the NASA Space Shuttle program, which ended in 2011. And while other space launches have begun using reusable, or at least partially reusable, rocket boosters, the SLS operating on launched on Monday, only fly once. This distinguishes SLS from Starship, the super-heavy launch vehicle SpaceX is designing for lunar missions. SpaceX, who defeated Blue Origin for a $2.9 billion contract To Build NASA’s Moon Landing System Expect Starship’s First Orbital Test Flight To Happen Somewhere the next six months. Congress’ decision to fund SLS is an ongoing sore spot within the aerospace industry because the project went billions over budget and has been delayed several times, and because private companies are now developing cheaper alternatives.
“Congress has put up with the budget overrun, behind schedule, because SLS has been pouring the money and jobs into key congressional districts,” explains Whitman Cobb.
There is broad support for Orion, which NASA designed specifically for Artemis missions, as well as possible travel to nearby asteroids or Mars. The spacecraft was built by Lockheed Martin and from the outside it looks like a giant turkey baster with wing-like panels protruding from its side. Orion is home to the Artemis crew module, where astronauts going overboard to and from the moon will eventually spend their time. Once the spacecraft has been vetted for human astronauts, the crew module is expected to provide several space amenities, including: sleeping bagsan assortment of new NASA recipes space food barsand a new one space toilet that is designed for weightlessness and people of all genders.
On this mission, the primary passengers will be a collection of science experiments. One test involves the NASA dolls Zohar and Helga, which are made of 38 slices of plastic that are intended to imitate human tissue, but also more than 5,600 sensors and 34 radiation detectors. There is a high level of radiation in space, which is a source of ongoing concern that future astronauts could be at an increased risk of cancer, especially as space travel becomes longer and more ambitious. Both manikins are designed with breasts and wombs because women are generally more sensitive to radiation. Zohar will also wear a special protective vest called AstroRed, which is being assessed by engineers as a possible way to protect astronauts from radiation, including during solar flares. Helga gets no vest and allows NASA to investigate how much the AstroRed actually helped.
Orion also carries an experiment that is intended to test how yeast responds to radiation. Researchers plan to store freeze-dried yeast under one of the Orion crew seats and then expose the yeast to liquid in space for three days. Once Orion lands back on Earth, scientists will analyze the yeast’s DNA to study how it fared. The experiment could provide insight into how people can stay healthy in space during future travels.
A version of Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, downloaded on an iPad, is also piggybacking. NASA is testing Callisto, a virtual AI designed by Amazon, Cisco and Lockheed Martin communicate with astronauts. While the technology may be a bit like HAL from 2001: A space odysseythe engineers say the system is meant to provide help and companionship.
“Callisto is a self-contained payload aboard the Orion spacecraft and has no control over flight control or other mission-critical systems,” said Justin Nikolaus, a chief Alexa experience designer at Amazon.
Other aspects of Artemis I’s charge are more sentimental. A plush doll version of the Shaun the Sheep character from the Wallace and Gromit franchise will travel on Orion. so will a Snoopy doll dressed in an astronaut costume, along with a nib that Charles M. Schultz used to draw the Peanuts series, wrapped in a comic book. Moments of the Apollo 11 missionthose who first landed humans on the lunar surface in the 1960s are also going, including a small sample of lunar dust and a piece of an engine.
Beyond the moon
Some of Artemis I’s most important research projects will not return to Earth. The mission includes plans to launch 10 miniature satellites called CubeSats into the moon’s orbit. These satellites will collect data that NASA, along with private companies, could eventually use to navigate on and around the moon.
a satellite, LunIRwill study the security of the lunar surface with infrared imaging, producing information that could affect where astronauts will eventually travel. One satellite, called the Lunar IceCube, will try to detect lunar sources of water, which NASA could eventually use as a resource. Another satellite, NEA Scout, will head to a small, nearby asteroid, a foray that could inform future manned missions to other asteroids. The satellites will not be launched by another component, the Orion Stage Adapter, until after the spacecraft is launched at a safe distance.
These satellites are a reminder that NASA is interested in much more than just a visit to the moon. The Artemis program is laying the groundwork for an unprecedented level of activity on the lunar surface, including a human base camp, a series of nuclear reactors and a mining operation. NASA has specifically said it wants to develop a lunar economy, and the space agency has also drafted the Artemis Accords, a set of principles for exploring the moon that more than 20 countries are now connected.
Ultimately, NASA plans to pit the moon on a much more ambitious journey: a human mission to Mars. Right now, it looks like that could happen sometime in the late 2030s. But while many of these plans are still a long way off, it is clear that the Artemis program is much more than a repeat of the Apollo program.
“Apollo was a political act in the context of the Cold War to demonstrate the national power of the US to the world. It was explicitly a race with the Soviet Union to get to the moon first. Once we were the first on the moon, the reason to keep going disappeared,” explains John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “Artemis is intended to be the first program in a long-term program of human exploration.”
All this, of course, depends on the smooth running of the Artemis I mission. NASA has yet to evaluate how well SLS and Orion work together during launch. The space agency also needs to investigate how well Orion survives its descent through the atmosphere, which we won’t know for a while. If all goes well, the Orion capsule, along with its motley crew of science experiments and galactic tchotchkes, will return to Earth on October 10 and crash into the Pacific Ocean.