NASA set for first moon mission in 50 years with Artemis I launch Monday

Artemis 1 will be the first moon mission since Apollo in 1972 and will be a test of various systems and capabilities.

NASA Moon Rocket
(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Photographers place remote cameras near the Artemis 1 rocket as she stands on Launch Pad 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center, Friday, Aug. 26, 2022, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The launch is scheduled for Monday morning Aug. 29.

Artemis 1 is scheduled to launch Monday, and it will be the first mission to the moon since Apollo in 1972. Laura Forczyk is the founder and Executive Director of space consulting firm Astralytical and Liliana Villareal is with NASA Kennedy Space Center. They spoke to Craig Cohen on Houston Matters about what the launch of the uncrewed mission around the moon means, and how it differs from the first moon landing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CH: How long has this mission been in development?

LV: I believe it’s been in development for 10 to 11 years.

And how much money has it cost to get just to this point?

LV: Oh, goodness, I don’t think I have the value off the top of my head. But the cost was really the investment to get all the ground systems developed and built, and also to get all of the design of the vehicle, the analysis to be able to prove that we can fly. So there’s definitely the cost … has been mostly for us to get to this point where we are today to launch it.

CH: And you’ve played a big role in the ground systems. Can you tell us what it is that you do?

LV: Yeah, so I helped lead the team that really did the final assembly of every piece of hardware that is part of the Orion and the SLS rocket. And also making sure that we had all of our ground systems ready to go. So we assembled it all we tested it, and then we literally turned it over to the launch director to go launch it.

CH: How will you measure success of this first mission of the Artemis program?

LV: So we have a lot of flight directors, objectives that we have set up to decide how give us confidence that we’re ready to put the crew on for the next Artemis 2 mission. It’s not just liftoff, we have a lot to do in the 38 to 42 days, depending on when we launched, that this vehicle is going to be doing. A lot of checks and balances in hardware that we need to ensure worked properly. We’re going to be going around the moon and then we’re going to be landing. It’s not just the liftoff, landing is just as important as the liftoff.

CH: While Artemis 1 will not take us to the moon it will get us closer to that return and then subsequent missions will return it to the moon surface. How will it also help us pursue exploration beyond the moon?

Artemis 1 is the the beginning of the Artemis program. The Artemis program is not just the SLS and the Orion vehicle, it’s also where we have a lot of future missions where we’re going to be spending a lot of hardware to build a gateway station that’s going to be orbiting the moon. And we eventually want to have habitats on the moon. And so that’s what the whole entire idea of the Artemis program is to be able to get us on the moon, figure out ways that we can live on the moon, learn how to live on the moon, because it had to be in deep space, totally different than Space Station. Live in deep space so that we can one day go to Mars.

CH: Is Artemis 1 significant just because of the program’s mission to return to the moon or is it more consequential than that?

LF: It is a return to the moon for the first time in 50 years, which is quite consequential. It’s also a different program than Apollo was. And it’s hopefully the beginning of returning to the moon and then going on to Mars.

CH: How does the new Artemis program differ from the Apollo program?

LF: Apollo was the geopolitical competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. And now there’s more of an international collaboration and a collaboration with commercial partners. Plus, we’re going to be sending the first woman to the surface of the moon, and the first person of color. Back during the Apollo era, only fighter pilots, former fighter pilots could be NASA astronauts, and they were all white men. And so now it’s going to be a crew that’s more diverse and more representative of the human population.

CH: What are the goals that NASA hopes to achieve with this first launch?

LF: So the first launch is just a test launch, it’s going to be testing the Space Launch System, along with the Orion capsule on top for the first time. It will not have people on board, but it will have mannequins on board called moon-nequins, which is very clever. It’s going to be testing the scientific environment that NASA astronauts are going to be undergoing in the Artemis 2 and Artemis 3 missions. And so we want to take vibration and radiation sensing, and all these things that will help us determine whether SLS and Orion are safe for Artemis 2, which is taking people around the surface of the Moon not landing, but going around the moon, circum lunar.

CH: You mentioned the SLS or the Space Launch System. That’s NASA’s newest rocket. And then there’s also the Orion capsule, what can you tell us about each one of them?

LF: So SLS is built by Boeing, and Orion is built by Lockheed Martin. And they are the heavy lift vehicle that will take NASA astronauts to the Gateway, which is going to be a small space station around the moon. And from there, NASA astronauts and actually the crew of Artemis 3 will be taking a separate vehicle right now for Artemis 3, that’s going to be a starship, built by SpaceX, which is a bit different from how NASA has traditionally done it. And NASA owns SLS and Orion, even though they’re built by contractors. But NASA is also taking a different approach of contracting out to commercial companies to have them do sort of space as a service. So SpaceX is going to be taking NASA astronauts back down to the surface of the earth, and then go back up again. So that we can have two methods of going down and back up. Another company will be chosen later. That will be the second method.

CH: Does it make it more complicated to pull off these missions, with the understanding that there need to be multiple ways to get rockets back and forth and multiple companies involved, maybe more than in the past?

LF: It actually helps with safety and redundancy. So we don’t want to have to rely on one system. And in fact, that’s what’s gone wrong with the space shuttle program, if you remember, it was one system and it had fatal incidents. And that’s what caused it to be retired and led to a gap from one space shuttle retired in 2011, to when SpaceX was able to launch its Dragon capsule to take people to the International Space Station in 2020. And that’s what we want to avoid. We want to avoid anything that would do a long gap. So it actually is very helpful and safer to be able to rely on different types of systems, different types of hardware and different operators that can do the same thing in different ways.

CH: How long will the Artemis I rocket be in space?

LF: It will be a few days. So it’s a test flight. It’s just meant to test the system to make sure that it can get off Earth, get to the moon, and then come back down safely. And so this is just going to be a quick test, it’s not going to go and land on the on the moon or anything. There are, in fact, other smaller landers that will be landing on the moon uncrewed, launching sometime in about a year or maybe even less. But this is a very big system. So it’s operates differently. They also want to test the life support since this is going to be the crewed vehicle and so it’s going to be a pretty quick mission, but that’s all they need.