The Artemis missions are NASA’s continuing efforts to get humans back to the moon. We’ve had astronauts in space for decades now aboard the orbiting International Space Station. The scope of the Artemis Phase I-III missions culminates historically with America putting the first woman and getting man back to the moon by 2024 in the Artemis Phase III Mission.
Artemis Phase I
Artemis Phase I is the uncrewed first flight and integrated test of NASA’s deep space exploration systems: the Orion Spacecraft, the Space Launch System (SLS) and finally the ground systems and control center at mission control in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Artemis Phase I is the first phase in a series of missions that will provide principle concepts and procedures for human exploration of deep space and beyond. Artemis Phase I will be a 3 week mission that will see the Orion crew capsule travel 280,000 miles from Earth. The crew capsule will stay in space longer than than any other ship for astronauts and will travel thousands of miles beyond the moon without docking at a space station and return home faster and hotter than was possible in the past.
The SLS and Orion Crew Capsule will be at Launch Complex 39B at the NASA’s modernized Kennedy Space Center in Florida prior to launch. The SLS rocket is designed for missions that go far beyond low Earth orbit and the intention is to get the crew capsule and cargo to the Moon and beyond. After jettisoning the boosters and rocket engines, module service panels and launch abort system the core stage will separate from the spacecraft. The spacecraft will then continue it’s orbit of Earth as it deploys solar panels and the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) which will give the spacecraft the additional momentum it will need to leave the Earth’s orbit onwards to the moon. Once this portion is complete the Orion Crew Capsule will separate from the ICPS approximatnely two hours after launch. A number of CubeSats will be deployed to perfrom science and technology experiments and demonstrations.
As the unmanned Orion Crew Capsule continues its journey to the moon it will be propelled by a service module that was provided by the European Space Agency (ESA). The service module is the spacecrafts main propulsion system and contains the power, air, water and housing for the astronauts on future crewed missions. The outbound trip to the Moon will take several days and during this time the remote operators and engineer will evaluate the spacecraft systems and alter the trajectory if required. The Orion spacecraft will fly about 62 kilometers above the surface of the moon and then utilize the moons gravity to put Orion 40,000 kilometers from the moon in a retrograde orbit for six days for further testing and to assess the performance of the Orion Space Capsule.
On Orion’s return trip to the Earth the spacecraft will use the ESA provided service module to precisely time an engine fire and slingshot the capsule back to an Earth return and reentry. As long as everything goes well this will conclude Phase I and certify the SLS Rocket and ready the Orion Crew Capsule for it’s next phase which will include getting astronauts to orbit the moon in Phase II.
Artemis Phase II
Artemis Phase II is the crewed launch of the Orion Space Capsule catapulted into orbit with NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). A crew of four astronauts will be launched from Kennedy Space Center. Astronauts for the first time will be aboard the Orion capsule to travel further into the solar system than man has ever traveled before. Orion will perform multiple maneuvers to raise the orbit for optimal insertion into the Moon’s orbit. The crew will then be placed in what is known as a lunar free return trajectory where Earth’s gravity will naturally pull our astronauts back home after flying by the moon.
The primary focus of Phase II will be to confirm that Orion’s systems operate as designed with the crew in the outer reaches of deep space which means navigation and life support systems will be thoroughly tested and vetted. There will come a point in the mission where the astronauts will remove their space suits and work in the environment of the Orion Space Capsule until it’s time to return to Earth at which time they will re-don their space suits. Ground control will also be put through their paces with live astronauts in space relaying near real time information as the mission continues. The Phase II mission is very much the mirror of the Phase I mission but this time with the astronauts aboard to fully give all systems the once over and report mission details in near real time to ground control. An exciting thing about this mission is that it will break the record of the furthest a human has ever been from Earth.
Astronauts will get a chance to perform manual flight maneuvers and test the rockets aboard the Orion Capsule before returning control back to ground control. Once the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) has been jettisoned continued checking of critical systems as well as crews metabolic rate and life support systems will be checked. Vapor in the air, carbon dioxide scrubbing and monitoring systems will be put through their paces as the 4 days round trip to the moon will see our astronauts in various activities ranging from sleep, to exercise, to day to day simulated activities which will assure life support systems in the Orion Crew cabin will sustain our astronauts.
With the ICPS having done most of the work to put the Orion Space Capsule in high earth orbit for transition to the translunar injection burn which will send our astronauts on the 4 day round trip around the moon. The astronauts will travel 4600 miles beyond the far side of the moon which will allow them to view the Moon and Earth through the Orion Capsules windows. With a 10 day total mission time the Orion Capsule with crew aboard utilizing and testing all components and procedures with ground control will give NASA, the astronauts, and all who have worked day in and day out over the last 25 years (and longer) that confidence to bring this mission to fruition with the final phase of the Artemis Missions, to get astronauts back to the Moon.
Artemis Phase III
The final phase of the Artemis missions, Phase III, will be another journey for the record books. Keep in mind this Phase is set to occur in 2024. Once again with a crew of 4 our astronauts will leave Earth with a final destination of the moon. This historic journey will put the first woman on the moon and the next to put man on the moon to walk on its surface. Starting with this mission, the Artemis III mission, it is NASA’s intent to launch crewed missions annually with initial focus to round out surface capabilities on the Moon and to build the lunar Gateway in orbit around the Moon. All three phases of these missions have a longer range goal in site. These are all preparatory steps to eventually get man to Mars and destinations further out in our solar system.
“NASA is leading a return to the Moon through an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities. SLS and Orion are critical backbone capabilities, along with the Gateway in lunar orbit and a modern human landing system, that will enable human missions of increasing complexity in deep space.”
The Orion Crew Capsule will once again leave Earth with our 4 astronauts for the ultimate destination which will bring Americans back to the Moon. With the SLS, Orion Capsule, Astronaut Procedures, and Ground/Mission Control procedures all given their initial testing in the Phase I and Phase II missions, this final Phase III mission will bring all that we have learned not just from these missions but from since the start of the space race back in the early 1960’s to culminate in America’s return to the moon, for good.
Contract bidding for the final portion of the Artemis III program continues even as I write this. As the Gateway infrastructure will not be used as interim stopping point before getting to the moon 3 companies are still in the running to engineer and produce the Human Landing System (HLS). Two astronauts will remain in orbit around the moon in the Orion Space Capsule as two astronauts board the Human Landing System to get them to the Moon’s surface. If you’d like to learn more about the companies and further details on the Artemis missions I will include the link to the official documentation in PDF form on the Artemis missions at the conclusion of this article.
So Artemis Phase III is still in active planning but Phase I and Phase II have all their science goals laid out ahead of them and will launched and tested by NASA in the coming months and years. I’ll continue to write articles as this mission progresses with high level overviews similar to this and previous articles over the coming years and follow the mission through it’s conclusion in 2024.
Official NASA Documentation on Artemis Missions: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/artemis_plan-20200921.pdf