A new NASA rocket will soon take off on a historic mission to the moon. The Artemis I mission will not land on the surface of the Moon, but the journey itself will be the farthest a vehicle designed for human astronauts has ever traveled into space.
There will be no humans on NASA’s big trip, but there will be three astronauts: Helga, Zohar and Mooney Campos. They are high-tech mannequins — that’s the term for human models used in scientific research — filled with sensors that will test how the human body reacts to space travel. Helga and Zohar are designed to measure the effects of radiation on women’s bodies in space, and Moonikin Campos will sit in the commander’s seat to monitor how difficult a trip to the moon might be for future human crew members. While these dummies may not look particularly impressive on their own, they will play a key role in NASA’s ambitions to build a new path to the moon and, eventually, send astronauts to Mars. They are also just one of several science experiments on the mission aimed at better understanding space travel.
The Artemis I mission will launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Monday morning. NASA is currently targeting a liftoff period between 8:33 and 10:33 a.m. ET. At that moment, the Space Launch System (SLS), i.e the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, will fly, a nose-carrying Orion spacecraft. When the vehicle leaves orbit, Orion will pass the Moon and then thousands of miles behind him, before turning around and heading back to Earth – a 1.3 million mile journey that will take 42 days. You can watch launch herebeginning 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 at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Studies, told Recode. “It will give NASA a little more confidence for the manned missions coming in the next few years.”
Artemis is the next generation of lunar missions. It is part of NASA’s broader ambitions for lunar exploration, which include trips by astronauts across the lunar surface, lunar man habitatand a new space station named Gateway. Artemis I also lays the groundwork for the next two missions in the Artemis program: Artemis 2 is scheduled to send humans on a similar trip around the moon in 2024, and Artemis 3 will make history by landing the first woman and the first person of color on the lunar surface sometime in 2025 at the earliest. All the research happening on Artemis I – including Helga, Zohar and Moonikin Campos – is aimed at preparing for those later missions.
Everyone on Artemis 1
NASA’s lunar rover, the SLS, was designed to carry extremely heavy payloads. The rocket is only a few meters higher than Statue of Libertyand can generate 8.8 million pounds of thrust. Like other launch systems, SLS consists of several different stages, each of which plays a role in overcoming Earth’s gravity, breaking through the atmosphere, and reaching space. To make this happen, SLS includes two solid rocket boosterslike ia 212 foot tall core filled with more than 700,000 gallons liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. It is the largest core phase NASA ever made.
After take off, the boosters will fire about 2 minutes before separating from the vehicle, falling back towards the ground and landing in the Atlantic Ocean. In eight minutes, the base phase will do the same. At that point, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) will take over and orbit Earth once. About 90 minutes into the flight, the ICPS will give Orion “a lot of pressure” it should start flying towards the moon and then fall.
Although technically new, the SLS is based on older technology. Several of its components, including its main engines, are either from or based on systems used by NASA’s 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 launched Monday will fly just once . This distinguishes SLS from Starship, the super-heavy launch vehicle that SpaceX is designing for missions to the Moon. SpaceX, which beat out Blue Origin for contract worth 2.9 billion dollars to build NASA’s lunar landing system, expects Starship’s first orbital test flight to take place sometime in the next six months. The decision of Congress to fund SLS is ongoing sore spot within the space industry as the project passed billions over budget and it has been delayed several times, also because private companies are now developing cheaper alternatives.
“Congress passed a budget that was too big, behind schedule, because SLS kept money and jobs flowing to key congressional districts,” Whitman Cobb explains.
There is widespread support for Orion, which was designed by NASA specifically for the Artemis missions, as well as potential trips to nearby asteroids or mars. The spacecraft was built by Lockheed Martin and, from the outside, looks like a giant turkey with wing-like panels sticking out of its sides. Orion is home to the Artemis crew module, where astronauts jettisoned to and from the moon will eventually spend their time. Once the spacecraft is screened for human astronauts, the crew module is expected to offer a variety of space travel amenities, including sleeping bagsassortment of the new NASA-recipe space food barsand renovated spacious toilet which is designed for zero gravity and people of all genders.
In this mission, the primary passengers will be a collection of science experiments. One test involves the NASA dummies Zohar and Helga, from which they were made 38 slices of plastic which are intended to mimic human tissue as well as more than 5,600 sensors and 34 radiations detectors. It’s here high level of radiation in space, a source of ongoing concern that future astronauts may face an increased risk of cancer, especially as space travel becomes longer and more ambitious. Both of these dolls are designed with breasts and wombs because women are more sensitive to radiation. Zohar will also wear a specialized protective vest called AstroRed, which engineers are evaluating as a potential way to protect astronauts from radiation, including during solar flares. Helga won’t get the vest and will let NASA study how much AstroRed actually helped.
Orion also carries an experiment it was to test how yeast reacts to radiation. The researchers plan to freeze-dried storage yeast under one of Orion’s crew seats, then expose the yeast to liquid for three days in space. When Orion returns to Earth, scientists will analyze the yeast’s DNA to study how it fared. The experiment could provide insight into how humans could stay healthy in space during future journeys.
A version of Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, which has been downloaded to the iPad, is also on the way. NASA is testing Callisto, a virtual artificial intelligence designed by Amazon, Cisco and Lockheed Martin to communicate with astronauts. Although the technology might sound a bit like HAL 2001: A Space Odysseyengineers say the system is meant to provide assistance and companionship.
“Callisto is a self-contained payload on the Orion spacecraft and has no control over flight control or other mission-critical systems,” says Justin Nikolaus, lead designer of the Alexa experience at Amazon.
Other aspects of Artemis I’s payload are more sentimental. A plush doll version of Shaun the sheep from the Wallace and Gromit franchise will travel on Orion. So will ia Snoopy doll dressed in an astronaut costume, complete with the pencil nib used by Charles M. Schultz to draw the Peanuts series, wrapped in a comic book. Momentos from the Apollo 11 missionthat landed the first men on the lunar surface in the 1960s, are also going, including a small sample of lunar dust and a piece of an engine.
Behind 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 lunar orbit. These satellites will collect data that NASA, along with private companies, could eventually use to navigate on and around the Moon.
one satellite, LunIRwill study the safety of the lunar surface using infrared imaging, generating information that could affect where astronauts will eventually travel. One satellite, invited Lunar IceCube, will try to discover lunar water sources, which NASA could eventually use as a resource. Another satellite, NEA Scout, will head to a small, nearby asteroid, a side trip that could inform future crewed missions to other asteroids. The satellites will be launched using another component, called the Orion Stage Adapter, only after the spacecraft is launched a safe distance.
These satellites are a reminder that NASA is interested in much more than going around 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 mining operations. NASA has specifically said it wants to develop a lunar economy, and the space agency has also established the Artemis Agreements, a set of principles for lunar exploration that more than 20 countries have now joined.
Eventually, NASA plans to turn the moon into a waypoint on a much more ambitious journey: a human mission to Mars. Right now it looks like it could happen sometime in the late 2030s. But while many of these plans are still a long way off, it’s 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 to the world US national power. It was an explicit race with the Soviet Union to be the first to reach the moon. When we first got to the moon, the reason to continue was gone,” explains John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “Artemis is intended as the first program in a long-term human research program.”
Of course, this all depends on the Artemis I mission going smoothly. NASA still needs to evaluate how well SLS and Orion work together during liftoff. The space agency also needs to study how well Orion survives its descent through the atmosphere, which we won’t know for some time. If all goes well, the Orion capsule, along with its motley cargo of science experiments and galactic probes, will return to Earth and splash down in the Pacific Ocean on October 10.