The Full Plan For Artemis Part II: Back To The Moon
With the upcoming launch of Artemis I, NASA is officially on the way back to the moon for the first time in 50 years. Recently I posted the first of 3 videos designed to cover the entire Artemis program. The last video focused on the uncrewed missions, today we’re looking at the human missions, the ones that will finally put boots on the moon again.
So last month I kicked off this series on the Artemis program by talking about the robotic and uncrewed missions that will do some research and set the stage for the next generation of humans to walk on the moon.
Today, we’re going to talk about those humans.
All right, so we’ve sent the robots, we’ve conducted the tests, we’ve stockpiled supplies and instruments through the CLPS program, now it’s time to send living, breathing, pooping humans back to the surface.
By the way, if you haven’t seen my previous video on those robotic missions, I’ll put a link on screen or down in the description – I encourage you to check that out because… well… that’s how I make money.
But those robotic missions are interesting and it also establishes why we’re going back and the water resources that are going to make going back and staying back possible.
So if we’re going to return humans to the moon, we’ve got to talk about how they’re going to get there, and for Artemis, that’s the Orion capsule.
A lot of attention has been paid over the last several years to the next generation of crewed vehicles designed to send astronauts to the ISS. This is a job NASA handed off to private companies as part of their Commercial Crew program.
So we’ve heard a lot about the SpaceX Crew Dragon, the Boeing Starliner, and the Sierra Space Dream Chaser… Only one of which has actually flown people to the ISS.
But at the same time, NASA has been developing the Orion capsule, designed to handle the rigors of deep space outside of low Earth orbit and the magnetic shield.
And that’s really what sets this one apart from the others, it is specifically designed for deep space travel.
The obvious comparison that you want to jump to with Orion is to compare it to the Apollo command module, but they’re different in some significant ways.
First and most obvious, Orion is bigger, built to carry 4 passengers as opposed to 3 for Apollo.
Orion crew capsule dimensions
16.5 ft wide
Capacity six astronauts but likely
13 ft wide
But just as obvious, the technology in Orion is like a million times what Apollo was.
You always hear that you have way more computer power in your phone than the Apollo module had, well Orion has the power of… 2 phones. Progress.
It also has a brand new toilet on board. Because enter joke here.
There’s also a bunch of storage behind the seats and in the event of a solar storm, there is extra shielding back there so they can take shelter.
It’s being built by Lockheed Martin, so just like Boeing has the Starliner, Lockheed has Orion. And it’s designed to support the crew for up to 21 days without docking.
And it comes with this massive launch abort system that covers the entire capsule and jettisons away after it leaves the atmosphere, with four larger motors in cast they need to abort closer to the pad.
Assuming they’ll still be allowed to abort in Florida.
European Service Module
Attached to Orion is the European Service Module, which you could compare that to the service module on Apollo except this is obviously being built by the European Space Agency.
This thing is loaded with engines, 33 engines total including the main engine which will push it out to lunar orbit, auxiliary thrusters, and reaction control thrusters.
All of which will make this a very stable, precise vehicle. Which is what you want from something that will be docking a lot.
This will carry the power and propulsion systems and “consumables” like air and water for the crew.
One other thing it will have that the Apollo service module didn’t is solar panels.
The ESM will have four solar array wings that NASA says will generate enough power to run two 3-bedroom houses.
Together, this is the system that will ferry astronauts back and forth from low Earth orbit to Lunar orbit.
If you recall in my video on the Space Task Group plans for NASA post-Apollo, you might recall they advocated for something like this, basically a ferry that can move people and cargo back and forth between space stations and lunar bases.
Except theirs was based on the nuclear NERVA engine, which is featured in For All Mankind.
How to make a Space Launch System. Start with a Space Transportation System.
Remove the Orbiter. Detatch the engines and apply them to the bottom of the external fuel tank. Throw in one more engine just for good measure.
Then, top the fuel tank with a second Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), and stack the Orion Capsule and European Service Module, or any moon-bound payload on top of that.
Congratulations. You’ve made a SLUSS!
Except actually difficult pifficult.
SLS looks like a cross between a Saturn V and the Space Shuttle, which seems like it would simplify everything, because we’ve done all that before, but this is many ways an entirely new rocket, which is why it’s been in development since 2011. It’s been 11 years and it’s just now ready to go up.
And there have been delays this year too. It was supposed to launch in June but back in April they rolled it out on the launchpad for a wet dress rehearsal and found a faulty helium valve that needed to be replaced.
And look, it would be very easy to start getting ranty right now about the entirety of the SLS program, it definitely has its issues and there’s plenty of content out there for that. I will skip that here, just check out the comments if you really want to go down that road. Because it’s already started.
But in an attempt to be more positive, I’ll just say that’s what testing is for. That’s the point of wet dress rehearsals, to find the issues and take care of them. And that’s what they’re doing.
To be fair this is not a small rocket, in fact, it is currently the biggest, most powerful rocket in the world.
It tops out at 322 feet tall on the landing pad, which is just a little bit taller than the Statue of Liberty. Slightly shorter than a Saturn V, but at 8.8 million pounds of thrust, it’s 15% more powerful. And it’ll carry five tons more cargo than the Space Shuttle. Not too shabby.
These are powered by those four Shuttle proven RS-25 engines and those two magnificent solid rocket boosters that I just can’t wait to see back in action.
Luckily you and I both won’t have to wait too long to see it because as of this recording, Artemis 1 is scheduled to launch on August 29th. T-0 is set for 8:33am from Pad 39-B at Kennedy Space Center, with extra opportunities on Sept. 2nd and 5th.
Artemis 1, also called Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1 will be an uncrewed test of the SLS, Orion and… well, everything. The plan is to go into Earth’s orbit, then fire a translunar injection burn out toward the moon. Once at the moon, it will do a little loop-de-loop that will actually go further out into space than any human-rated vehicle has ever gone (280,000 miles) before coming back to Earth.
Once back in Earth’s orbit, the Orion capsule will separate from the service module and re-enter the atmosphere, splashing down in the ocean.
Altogether the Artemis I Mission will last about 3 weeks and will test all the new propulsion, guidance and communications systems.
Along the way, Orion will drop off 13 cube sats that will run a variety of deep space experiments including one where they test the effect of deep space radiation on yeast and scanning the moon’s surface for water ice and other resources.
But maybe one of the most important tests for Artemis I is just seeing if we can do this again. This is the first time a human-rated craft has visited the moon in 50 years. 49 years and 9 months, specifically.
Artemis is a massive program involving 3,200 suppliers and contractors from every state in the country, including Aerojet Rocketdyne, Boeing, Jacobs, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman – because that’s how these things get funded. And yes, there’s plenty of debate around whether this model still makes any sense.
Artemis II is basically the Apollo 8 moment of the Artemis program. It’ll do basically the same thing as Artemis 1 without the moon loop de loop but with four astronauts on board.
And just like Apollo 8, they will have the experience of coming around the moon and seeing the Earth in its entirety in the distance. They’ll be the first human beings to see that in 50 years.
And maybe, if we’re lucky, they’ll livestream that moment so we can all experience it with them, which is something we’ve never been able to do before.
I feel like I’m saying that a lot but I think a lot of people kinda blow off Artemis because we’ve already been to the moon before, but there are a LOT of firsts taking place in this program. And I think that’s worth mentioning.
Artemis II is scheduled to launch in 2024 from a slightly evolved SLS rocket that will be able to lift 45 metric tons, so it’ll be bigger and badder than before.
It’ll be a 10 day mission during which the crew will test out all the systems including system performance, crew interfaces, guidance and navigation systems, and that fancy new toilet I talked about.
They will also do something different from Apollo missions in that they will rely on the Deep Space Network to communicate as opposed to the Earth satellite networks, so they will be testing that as well.
The DSN consists of three facilities spaced equidistant from each other – approximately 120 degrees apart in longitude – around the world. And this is how NASA keeps track of solar system probes, Mars rovers, the Voyagers, that kind of thing.
But I think this it’s interesting that they’ll be using this network designed for deep space missions for a human flight. I think this is the first time they’ve ever done that, which is really cool.
You could imagine someday school children on Mars will be learning about the first time humans communicated over the Deep Space Network that they use every day.
And the names of those astronauts will be… We don’t know yet. They haven’t been picked, but there have been 18 astronauts chosen for the Artemis team. It’s a diverse group of equal parts men and women, reflecting the agency’s goal of putting the first woman and person of color on the moon.
So assuming Artemis II goes off without a hitch, now it’s time to land. There’s just one thing to do first.
I talked in the last video about the Lunar Gateway, and it’s funky rectilinear halo orbit, well the first couple of modules are scheduled to go up in November of 2024 on a Falcon Heavy, so maybe right after Artemis II.
Another module called I-HAB will be added later (2026), more on that in a minute.
Because once that’s ready to go, it’s time to put some boots on the regolith. Of course… you need something to get you to that regolith… So… I guess we need to talk about the Human Landing System.
HUMAN LANDING SYSTEM
It’s a very simple nomenclature, this Artemis program. The Space Launch System launches people into space. The Human Landing System… lands humans.
So again… this could be and has been its own video a million times over, feel free to browse around, there are a million hot takes out there, but the short version is… it’s a lunar version of the SpaceX Starship.
NASA opened up the Human Landing System to private industry, and it came down to three proposals, SpaceX with the Starship variant, a company called Dynetics, and Blue Origin’s National Team, which included Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper.
And in April of 2021, to pretty much everybody’ shock, NASA chose SpaceX. And then Blue Origin sued NASA and it got ugly and stupid.
But I say shock because… I mean look at this thing.
But maybe not a shock because it’s the only option that was fully reusable. All the others left a landing stage behind when they ascend like the Apollo lander, and you can only do that so many times before the landing stages start to pile up.
We haven’t seen any official renderings of the interior but we do know that the crew space will be WAY up at the top.
Yeah the plan seems to be that they’re going to engineer a crane like this to get crew and cargo down to the ground, which sounds insane to me, especially considering how abrasive lunar dust is. I have honest concerns about the longevity of this solution.
You know another reason NASA may have chosen this is because SpaceX has already shown they can do human rated flight with the Crew Dragon. In fact, this kinda looks like a hybrid of the Starship and Crew Dragon.
They’ve also shown that they can land rockets pretty well. So yeah, maybe not so shocking.
Now it should be mentioned, the choice NASA made was which company they were going to contract to build this thing, so they are helping to fund the Starship Lander. The other two companies can still revise their plans and then lobby NASA to use their lander, which they seem to be doing.
But yeah, it’s a huge lander, and it looks especially insane next to the Gateway. I mean… Why even have it?
But this version of Starship is not designed to ever come back to Earth so there’s no heat shielding on it, it is a deep space vessel.
And we don’t know exactly when they’ll have it done but it’d better be by 2025 because that, at long last, is when we land on the moon again, on Artemis III.
So if Artemis II is this generation’s Apollo 8, Artemis III would be Apollo 11. The math checks out.
So we’re doing in 3 steps what Apollo took 11 steps to do. That’s progress.
Artemis III will take off on the SLS with a crew of four, and after a few orbits will head out to the moon where the Gateway and Lander will be waiting for them. They’ll dock Orion with the Gateway and do a few orbits before 2 of the astronauts move over into the Lunar Lander, and then on the next swing by the moon, they drop down to the surface and land.
These two astronauts will spend about a week on the moon, performing experiments and testing out all the systems while looking for water ice in nearby craters. All the while the other two will be doing the same from orbit in the Gateway.
So like the command module pilot from Apollo except they get to have a buddy.
Anyway, after the mission objectives are complete, the lander will launch back up to dock with Gateway, the crew will transfer cargo and themselves back into Orion, and then head back to Earth for a splashdown.
Along the way, I’m sure that we are going to see some great live events from the Moon which is wild to think about.
The first moon landing was shown in grainy detail on a black and white CRTV to streaming 4k on Twitch.
So Artemis III will be a technology demonstration and celebration of American ingenuity. A very big deal will be made for this.
But just like Apollo 11 wasn’t the end of the Apollo program, Artemis III is just the beginning for Artemis.
Next up will be Artemis IV, which actually won’t land on the moon, it will be a crewed mission to deliver the I-HAB module to the Gateway and spend some time on that, testing out human habitation in deep space.
It will also go up on a bigger, beefier SLS Block 1B that will replace the ICPS second stage with a larger Exploration Upper Stage.
The mission objectives are still being solidified but this is currently scheduled for launch in 2027, followed by Artemis V in 2028.
Artemis V will go back to the surface of the moon, and it’ll be a similar flight profile as Artemis III, with two astronauts going down to the surface and two stay up in the Gateway.
They are bringing with them another module for the Gateway called the ESPIRIT module and the advanced Canadarm.
They’ll also be bringing a new unpressurized moon rover to cover more ground on the moon and will likely spend more time than Artemis III.
So that brings us to 2028 – assuming things stick to plan – and we will have landed on the moon twice with a total of 4 astronauts. And this… is all that’s been funded. Things get kinda murky after this.
If you go to the Wikipedia page, there are proposed missions going up through Artemis X roughly in 2032, but right now NASA has only been funded through Artemis V. So what does that mean for the future of the Artemis Program?
The answer depends on a lot of things, not least of which what the economic and political landscape looks like in 8 years, both of which are super stable these days.
Also as many are already saying in the comments, if SpaceX really nails the Starship platform, I think you can say goodbye to the SLS, it’s just a no-brainer.
Though I’ve said it once and I’ll keep saying it, I think it’ll be a very long time before Starship is human rated, especially for landing.
Also who knows, the private space industry is changing super fast, maybe another company steps up and provides a different more affordable solution
A lot of the future of Artemis also relies on whether or not they’re successful at finding water ice in those craters. After all that’s kind-of the whole point is to find resources that can sustain a long-term base on the moon and exploration beyond.
And I have to say as I was researching this, I was kinda surprised how much the “beyond” part gets hyped in NASA’s Artemis discussions. They really do see it as the first step to Mars.
I mean, I found this page where they kinda explain the Artemis logo and what all the elements mean and they reference the words “Mars” and “Beyond” almost as much as they do the moon. Even that red swoosh that completes the letter A is colored red – for Mars.
NASA has totally framed Artemis as the just the first step toward human exploration of the solar system. And I’m not gonna lie… I like it.
I feel like so much press has been given to Elon and his Mars ambitions, we don’t hear as much about the fact that NASA’s got very similar ambitions, just through a moon infrastructure.
There are still some hurdles, one worth mentioning is the next generation moon suits.
I’ll point you to a video from Real Engineering that breaks it down really well but the original Apollo suits really didn’t hold up very well against the lunar regolith. And the longest any of them were on the moon was 22 hours on Apollo 17.
With no water or wind to break it down, lunar dust is basically a bunch of microscopic shards of glass. And these new suits need to hold up to that for years at a time.
Not to mention provide more freedom of movement and longer time for moonwalks that will be needed for the construction and maintenance of a moon base.
And yeah, there have been some major stumbles on the new suits, some are concerned it’s going to throw the schedule way out of whack.
So I do expect delays, there will be some bumps in the road. But I have a reason to believe NASA will pull it off.
Two words. Pissing. Contest.
China’s space program has been making huge progress with their Tiangong space station and Chang’e lunar program.
So far they’ve launched 7 successful missions to the moon, including orbiters, landers, and rovers and have shown interest in landing humans there and establishing a habitable base on the South Pole.
In fact, in 2021, they announced a partnership with Russia to build a moon base they’re calling the International Lunar Research Station.
So yeah… they see an opportunity to position themselves as the true superpower in the world. To say that sure the US was able to do great things 50 years ago but now we’ve got the advantage. And the moon is the ultimate high ground.
And I don’t see the US just letting that happen. That’s the kind of thing that makes dollars flow toward NASA.
So my bet is, even though Artemis is only funded through the Artemis 5 mission, we’ll see more funding in the future as that rivalry heats up. It’s starting to look like Artemis could be fueled by the same forces that fueled Apollo.
And if that is the case, what happens next? What is this “beyond” NASA keeps referring to with Artemis? That’s the subject of the next video in this series.