NASA's Orion Capsule is drawn to the well deck of the USS Portland during recovery operations after ...

Moon bounce

NASA’s Artemis: Mission goals and next steps for the ambitious lunar program

These are the crucial hurdles NASA needs to clear in order to send humans back to the Moon in 2024.

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In a few years, astronauts could plant boots on the Moon for the first time in half a century.

By 2024, NASA plans to send the first woman and person of color to the Moon as part of the agency's Artemis mission. But getting to the Moon is no easy feat. To make the journey a success, these crewed flights require the agency to clear a number of hurdles technical and safety first.

NASA has an ambitious timeline for its next human-grade lunar mission. The space agency launched the first phase, Artemis I, on November 16, 2022. This uncrewed test flight traveled thousands of miles past the Moon (and back) to lay the groundwork for a series of increasingly more complex trips.

The agency completed one of the final safety tests, with flying colors, testing out the attitude control motor on the Orion spacecraft which will carry the Artemis astronauts to the Moon.NASA

So, what comes next? Inverse has put together a timeline of the events we can expect leading up to humanity’s return to the lunar surface.

March through September 2022: Artemis I first steps

On March 17, 2022, NASA rolled out Artemis I, comprised of a stacked Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with an Orion capsule atop. Artemis I then made an achingly slow four-mile journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to Launch Complex 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The next step was a wet dress rehearsal. This is when NASA engineers and other mission control members simulate a launch with a fully-fueled rocket. It differs from a static test fire in that the rockets are never ignited. A wet dress rehearsal prepares Artemis team members for contingencies that may arrive during a real launch. NASA performed three wet dress rehearsals during the month of April at the launch pad, each one taking two days in total.

But NASA returned Artemis I back to the VAB on April 26, because teams encountered problems during those tests. They brought Artemis I back to its launchpad on June 6, following repairs of a leaking fuel line and malfunctioning helium gas valve.

NASA called its fourth wet dress rehearsal on June 20 a success, and spent the rest of the summer preparing Artemis I for its trip to the Moon.

November 2022: Artemis I launched

NASA launched Artemis I on November 16, 2022.

That was contingent on a thorough review of the rocket’s structure following its exposure to Hurricane Nicole’s high winds during the earlier part of the month. On November 14, NASA officials announced they would proceed with launch but acknowledged there was a possibility that some caulk, called room temperature vulcanization (RTV) could fall off during flight after Hurricane Nicole’s winds had delaminated the RTV material high up on the vehicle.

November 16 was not the first attempt to fly Artemis I.

Artemis I tried twice at the end of summer 2022 to launch. But propellant leaks and Hurricane Ian halted that plan.

NASA called off the first two attempts, on August 29 and September 3. One reason, among a few, was that highly-flammable liquid hydrogen propellant was leaking from the cables that pour and drain fuel to and from the rocket. NASA directed teams to set up a tent at the launchpad where they would reseal the leaky interface fuel lines. The agency then performed a modified fuel test on September 21 to test their repair work, and liked the readings.

NASA felt confident the mission was ready to fly. Then came the hurricanes.

The storm that would eventually become Hurricane Ian formed in the western Caribbean Sea and on September 26, NASA rolled Artemis I off the launchpad to wait out the storm inside the VAB. Hurricane season wasn’t done interfering with Artemis I, because shortly after NASA rolled the rocket back to the launchpad on November 4, the system that eventually evolved into Hurricane Nicole showed a trajectory heading towards eastern Florida. This time, NASA elected to leave the rocket on the launchpad.

And Artemis I finally launched on November 16, 2022. Although there were a few snags in the hours leading up to launch — like a fuel leak that required NASA’s “red team” to perform a potentially hazardous intervention in the middle of cryogenic propulsion loading — the rocket took off.

NASA has officially kicked off the Artemis program that day. Then after a 25.5-day mission to the Moon and back, the command module of the Artemis I Orion capsule successfully splashed down to Earth on December 11, 2022, off the coast of Mexico, where NASA and the U.S. Navy recovered it.

There were no humans onboard Artemis I. To safely bring astronauts to the Moon, NASA had to first send an uncrewed test spacecraft. NASA sent one full manikin, called Moonikin Campos. And the European Space Agency is provided two female manikin torsos, called Helga and Zohar. These will help teams evaluate the phenomena astronauts might experience on Artemis II and later missions.

"This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known."

On Artemis I, NASA’s first SLS vehicle provided 8.8 million lbs of thrust to send the Orion capsule and its three manikin passengers to the Moon.

Instead of landing on the Moon, Artemis I flew farther than any human-grade spacecraft ever has: 268,563 miles from Earth.

Artemis I will overshoot the Moon before returning back to Earth.NASA

Its return to Earth on December 11 gave NASA a chance to test “skip entry,” in which a spacecraft uses Earth’s atmosphere to partially aerobrake, slowing down its velocity enough to be captured by Earth. This fuel-saving measure has the added benefit of making landings more precise. It also eases the forces that a future crew would experience, by splitting up the reentry.

May 2024: Artemis II takes off

Artemis II is designed to carry humans on board the Orion spacecraft, although they will not land on the Moon, either. Instead, the spacecraft is designed to orbit the Moon and return back to Earth. This is similar to the Apollo program. While Apollo 11 was the first mission to land on the Moon, Apollo 8 and Apollo 10, both of which orbited the Moon with a full crew without landing on it.

Artemis II is currently scheduled to launch in May 2024.

It will be the first crewed mission to leave Earth’s low orbit in the 21st century, following in the flight path of Apollo 17, which made the trip in 1972.

“During this mission, we have a number of tests designed to demonstrate critical functions, including mission planning, system performance, crew interfaces, and navigation and guidance in deep space.” Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator of Exploration Systems Development at NASA, said in a statement.

A timeline of the Artemis II mission.NASA

The spacecraft will circle the Earth twice and periodically fire its engine to build up enough speed to propel it towards the Moon. It will briefly swing around the Moon before returning to Earth. It will fly about 4600 miles above the lunar surface. This will put astronauts at the farthest distance they will have ever been from Earth, eclipsing the Apollo 13 record of 157 miles above the Moon’s surface. Crew for the mission has not yet been decided, but it will consist of three American astronauts and one Canadian astronaut.

After it swings by the Moon, the spacecraft will use the Moon’s gravitational pull to slingshot itself back to Earth, where it will (fingers crossed) land safely.

2025: Artemis III takes center stage

Artemis I and II are the support acts to a killer headliner: Artemis 3.

If NASA meets these two tests of its engineering ingenuity, then in 2025, we will finally come to the main event: A second crewed Artemis flight aboard the Orion spacecraft. But this time, the mission will land on the Moon.

Once it reaches the Moon, the spacecraft will connect with the lunar gateway, a small spaceship that will be orbiting the Moon. The gateway is already under construction, although NASA predicts it won't be fully completed until 2026. A lot rests on whether the power and propulsion element of the gateway can be completed pre-2025, the agency says.

The element is a solar electric propulsion spacecraft. It will serve as a mobile command and service module, enabling communications between human and robotic expeditions to the lunar surface and ground control here on Earth.

The gateway will also allow astronauts to have access to different areas on the lunar terrain, including the Moon's South Pole.

If all goes according to plan, two or more astronauts carried by Artemis 3 will touch down on the Moon’s South Pole. The South Pole is an unexplored region of the Moon. Previous missions have landed on the near side of the Moon that faces the Earth, but the South Pole lies on the far side that is obscured from our Earth-bound view.

And unlike the Apollo missions, this time when humans land on the Moon, they plan on being frequent lunar flyers. Ultimately the Artemis program wants to set up a sustainable presence of astronauts on the Moon, sending a crew up to the lunar surface once every year.

The initial missions will be focused on establishing the capabilities on the lunar surface to do that and building a gateway in orbit around the Moon, as well as a modern landing system for humans on the Moon.

And to do that, the agency needs a rolling supply of astronauts. Do you have what it takes to join the mission? Find out what two qualities you really need to make it onto NASA's list of candidate astronauts here.

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