The uncrewed Artemis I test flight is over, but Artemis II – which will be the first with astronauts on board – won’t be until 2024.
In an interview this summer, Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, spoke out about the gap between Artemis I and Artemis II. “I raised Cain,” he said. “If this first mission is successful and meets its goals and is safe for the astronauts, why can’t we do it faster than two years?”
Mr. Nelson said that years ago, to save money, NASA decided to reuse some of the electronic equipment, known as avionics, from the Artemis I Orion capsule in the new Orion capsule for Artemis II. “It takes them two years to take the avionics out and reinstall them,” said Mr. Nelson, “which is very frustrating to me, but it is what it is.”
There will be four astronauts aboard Artemis II. Three will be from NASA and one will be Canadian, part of the agreement detailing the Canadian Space Agency’s participation in the Artemis program. NASA has not yet announced who will fly on the mission.
The trajectory of Artemis II will be quite simple. After liftoff, the Space Launch System’s second stage will push Orion into an elliptical orbit that orbits as high as 1,800 miles above Earth, giving astronauts time to see how Orion’s systems work.
Then, when Orion speeds around again, its engine will start to send it to the moon. For Artemis II, the Orion spacecraft will not enter lunar orbit; it will instead use the moon’s gravity to swing back toward Earth for a splash in the Pacific Ocean. The whole journey takes about 10 days.
The big event will be Artemis III, currently scheduled for no earlier than 2025.
During the Apollo moon landings in the 1960s and 1970s, the lunar lander was packed into the Saturn V rocket. The lander for Artemis III will be a version of a Starship rocket built by SpaceX. The Lunar Starship launches separately. Additional Starships would then be launched to refill the Lunar Starship’s propellant tanks before it left Earth orbit.
At the moon, the Starship lander will enter what is known as a near-rectilinear halo orbit, or NRHO
Halo orbits are influenced by the gravitational pull of two bodies – in this case the Earth and the Moon – which help make the orbit very stable, reducing the amount of propellant required to orbit a spacecraft around the Moon, is reduced to a minimum. A spacecraft in this orbit also never passes behind the Moon, where communication with Earth is lost.
Once Starship is in lunar orbit, the Space Launch System rocket will send four astronauts in an Orion capsule to the same near-rectilinear halo orbit. The Orion will dock with the spaceship. Two of the astronauts will go to the Starship rocket and land somewhere near the south pole of the moon, while the other two astronauts will remain in Orion orbit.
After about a week on the surface, the two lunar astronauts will blast off in Starship and meet Orion in orbit. Orion will then return the four astronauts to Earth.
In August, NASA announced 13 possible landing sites near the moon’s south pole.
The astronauts aboard Artemis IV will head to Gateway, a space station-like outpost that NASA will build in the same near-rectilinear halo orbit used for Artemis III. That mission will use a Space Launch System rocket with an upgraded second stage, providing enough power to carry Gateway’s habitat module.
Originally, NASA planned for Artemis IV to focus on Gateway construction. But this year it decided the mission would also include a trip to the lunar surface. Last month, NASA announced that SpaceX would provide the lander for Artemis IV.
For Artemis V and later missions, the lunar module will be docked at Gateway. Astronauts arrive at the Gateway on Orion and then proceed to the lander for the journey to the lunar surface.
NASA is now considering bids for another company to supply the lander for Artemis V.
Among the companies potentially bidding to build a competing lander is Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
NASA would then run a competition for future lunar landers, similar to how it hired companies to deliver cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.