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The Artemis 1 mission establishes the foundation for routine space exploration beyond Earth's orbit

NASA's Artemis 1 mission is about to take an important step toward reintroducing people to the moon after a half-century absence. The launch was originally slated for the morning of August 29, 2022, but was pushed back owing to a problem with one of the rocket's engines. The rocket will be launched again on September 2, 2022. The mission is a test flight without a crew for NASA's Space Launch System and Orion Crew Capsule. The spaceship will go to the moon, deploy some tiny satellites, and then enter orbit. NASA's goal is to practice operating the spacecraft, test the circumstances that humans would encounter on and around the moon, and ensure that the ship and any inhabitants can safely return to Earth.

The Conversation asked Jack Burns, a professor and space scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and a former member of NASA's Presidential Transition Team, to describe the mission, explain what the Artemis program promises to do for space exploration, and reflect on how the space program has changed in the half-century since humans last set foot on the moon.

The new Space Launch System's maiden flight will be Artemis 1. NASA refers to this as a "heavy lift" vehicle. It will be the most powerful rocket engine ever flown into orbit, even more powerful than Apollo's Saturn V system, which transported people to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s.

It's a novel rocket system since it combines liquid oxygen and hydrogen main engines, as well as two strap-on solid rocket boosters borrowed from the space shuttle. It looks like a cross between the space shuttle and Apollo's Saturn V rocket.

Testing is critical because the Orion Crew Capsule will be put through its paces. It will spend a month in the high-radiation environment of the moon's space environment. And, most crucially, it will put the heat shield that shields the capsule and its occupants to the test when it returns to Earth at 25,000 miles per hour. This will be the fastest capsule reentry since Apollo, thus the heat shield must perform flawlessly.

This mission will also carry a number of tiny satellites that will be deployed in lunar orbit. Those will do some valuable preliminary work, like as peering deeper into the permanently shadowed craters where scientists believe there is water, or just taking additional measurements of the radiation environment to determine the impacts on people of long-term exposure.

The mission is the first step toward Artemis 3, which will result in the first human moon expeditions in the twenty-first century and the first since 1972. Artemis 1 is a test flight without a crew. Astronauts will be aboard Artemis 2, which is set to launch a few years later. It, too, will be an orbital mission, similar to Apollo 8, which circled the moon and returned home. The astronauts will orbit the moon for a longer period of time and will test everything with a human crew. Finally, Artemis 3 will travel to the moon's surface, where it will meet with the SpaceX Starship and transfer personnel somewhere in the mid-decade. The Orion spacecraft will remain in orbit, while the lunar Starship will transport the crew to the surface. They will travel to the moon's south pole to research the water ice there, which has never been investigated by scientists previously.

The original goal of Apollo was for Kennedy to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. The government was uninterested in space travel or the moon itself, but it represented an aspirational ambition that would plainly place America foremost in science and technology. The disadvantage of doing so is the old adage, "You live by the sword, you die by the sword." When the United States landed on the moon, it was practically game over. The Russians were defeated. So we set up some flags and conducted some scientific studies. However, just a few flights after Apollo 11, Richard Nixon halted the program because the political objectives had been reached. So let's fast forward 50 years. This is a vastly different setting. We're not doing this to beat the Russians, Chinese, or anyone else; we're doing it to start a sustainable exploration beyond Earth's orbit.

The Artemis initiative is motivated by a variety of objectives. It involves in situ resource utilization, which is the use of locally available resources such as water ice and lunar soil to manufacture food, fuel, and construction materials. Because SpaceX is heavily involved in this first voyage to the moon's surface, the program is also assisting in the establishment of a lunar and space economy, beginning with entrepreneurs. NASA does not own the Starship, but it is purchasing seats so that astronauts may go to the surface. The Starship will thereafter be used for various reasons, like transporting additional payloads, private astronauts, and astronauts from other countries.

After fifty years of technical advancement, traveling to the moon is now considerably less expensive and technologically viable, and many more complicated tests are achievable when you figure out the computer technology. Those 50 years of technical progress have been a total game changer. Almost anyone with enough money may currently launch a spaceship to the moon, but not necessarily with humans. NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program hires commercial businesses to develop unmanned lunar landers. My colleagues and I are taking a radio telescope to the moon on one of the landers in January. Even ten years ago, that would not have been conceivable.

According to the administration, the first crewed trip aboard Artemis 3 will include at least one woman and, most likely, a person of color. They might be the same person. There might be numerous. I'm excited to see more of that diversity, because young people today who look up to NASA can say, "Hey, there's an astronaut that like me. This is something I can handle. I may participate in the space program."

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