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The Artemis Program: Back to The Moon, Onwards to Mars

The race to land humans on the moon was sparked by President John F. Kennedy's 1962 speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, today known as the “We choose to go to the moon” speech. In his speech, Kennedy pledged to have a human walk on the moon by the end of the decade (Evans, 2022). Since the return of Apollo 17, NASA's last lunar mission in 1972, humans have not ventured more than a few hundred miles beyond Earth. Only 12 of the 24 astronauts who visited the moon as part of the Apollo program actually landed there. They were all American. They were all white men and most of them had previously worked as test pilots (Odom, 2022). For the first time in over 50 years, NASA has announced a crew of astronauts who will travel to the moon. The NASA-led Artemis mission is a new chapter in lunar exploration aimed at launching humans deeper into space than ever before (Dunbar, 2023). Artemis’ most recent mission (Artemis II) will be a major milestone in NASA's program, aimed at bringing humans back to the lunar surface and acting as a potential stepping stone to landing on Mars. The major goal of the endeavour is to study the icy areas near the moon's south pole. Water ice discovered in inky black craters could provide future astronauts with water and oxygen, as well as fuel for expeditions further into space. The astronauts of 2023 are very different from those when the US competed with the USSR for the first moon landing. This time the astronaut corps represents a much broader cross-section of society (Wattles & Strickland, 2023). Artemis will usher in a new era of human discovery.

Apollo 11: A Giant Step Forward in Human Cosmic History

Apollo 11 was the first American space mission to land humans on the moon in 1969. Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Buzz Aldrin reached lunar orbit in the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle spacecraft. The Lunar Module (LM) carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the lunar surface in Mare Tranquilitatis (the "Sea of ​​Tranquility") while pilot Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit in the Command and Service Module (CSM) (Dunbar, 2022). The Command Module (CM) served as the Apollo spacecraft's control center, housing the crew, spacecraft operational systems, and re-entry equipment. This cabin also provided living and working quarters for the crew during the entire mission, except when the LM was gearing up for landing or departure (Williams, 2022). The Service Module (SM) is tethered to the CM until just before re-entry, when it is expelled and destroyed. Its purpose is to provide support for the CM and its crew. It held the power supply subsystem, which included the spacecraft's primary propulsion system and supplied the majority of the consumables (oxygen, water, propellant, hydrogen) (World Spaceflight News, 2000).

Figure 1 - Pilot Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon (Frank, 2012).

A national ambition to land a manned spacecraft on the moon and return to Earth was Apollo 11's primary goal. This goal was first put forward by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. While on the moon, astronauts were tasked with gathering samples of lunar surface elements to return to Earth. They were also tasked to take comprehensive photographs of the lunar surface, as well as the scientific equipment, the LM spaceship, and each other using still and film cameras (Dunbar, 2022). Armstrong made "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind", as he described the occasion to an estimated 650 million television viewers (Killingsworth, 2019). In addition, astronauts have also performed lunar landings on five consecutive Apollo missions, the last of which was Apollo 17 in 1972. During the six launches, twelve astronauts (out of 24) stepped on the moon.

Apollo 17: The Last Time a Man Stepped on the Moon

Apollo 17 was NASA's last lunar landing mission and the last time humans walked on the moon or ventured past low Earth orbit, which, as the name suggests, refers to an orbit relatively close to the Earth's surface (usually at an altitude of less than 1000 km) (Neufeld, 2022). However, this final mission also included a first. During Apollo 17, Harrison Schmitt became the first scientist-astronaut to set foot on the moon. While Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans orbited overhead, Commander Gene Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt made history as the final two men to set foot on the Moon (Lewis, 2023). The mission purpose was to gain a greater grasp of the hazards of radiation, which is why a five-mouse biological experiment was carried out in the command module. Five Little Pocket mice (Perognathus longimembris), were flown in a sealed container with plastic radiation dosimeters (devices that measure the amount of external ionizing radiation absorbed) implanted under their heads. The purpose was to determine whether there were any microscopically discernible lesions caused by radiation in the brains, eyes and other organs of these animals (Haymaker et al., 1975).

Figure 2 - Scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt, lunar module pilot, collects samples of the lunar surface (“Apollo 17 Mission Overview”, n.d.).

When deciding on the landing site, the mission crew had two main goals in consideration: to sample lunar highland material older than Mare Imbrium (from Latin imbrium, meaning "sea of showers" or "sea of rains"), a massive lava field on the lunar face and one of the largest and oldest known craters in the solar system; and to investigate the possibility of recent volcanic activity (Apollo 17 Landing Site Overview, n.d.). The constellation Taurus Littrow was chosen because the structures seen and photographed from orbit were presumed to be of volcanic origin (Zimbelman, 2023). In total, the astronauts spent 75 hours on the lunar surface and returned with 110 kg of lunar material. Schmitt and Cernan covered 30.5 kilometres with the lunar rover and set up a sixth autonomous research station (Brian Odom, 2022; Uri, 2022). Schmitt's participation in the mission was reflected in the Space Shuttle program, which allowed many other scientists to follow him into space (Uri, 2022). Despite Apollo's 17 success, NASA faced substantial budgetary constraints that rendered the Apollo program unsustainable. Originally, 20 Apollo missions were planned; yet, technological and research missions were deemed less important than the lunar landing, and the remaining three missions were cancelled (Why Did We Stop Going to the Moon?, n.d.).

"I'm on the surface and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come - but we believe not too long into the future - I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.", Cernan, Apollo 17.
Figure 3 - At the Taurus-Littrow landing site, Apollo 17 Mission Commander Eugene Cernan drives the lunar rover. The LM may be seen in the the background (Schwatrz, 2022).

The Artemis Program: A Stepping Stone From The Moon to Mars

The NASA-led Artemis program is an exciting chapter in the lunar quest that aims to propel humans further into space and to develop and establish a sustainable human presence on the moon through robotic and human exploration. This would allow regular visits to such a distant neighbourhood (Dunbar, 2023; Inclán & Rydin, 2020). This initiative is a NASA-led international partnership with contributions from the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), as well as participation from many companies (SEDS Bocconi, n.d.; Witt et al., 2021). The aim of the Artemis program is to build up know-how for a long-term return to the moon. The initiative also lays the foundation for future space travel to more distant destinations such as Mars. However, NASA's goal of landing astronauts on Mars in the 2030s requires first perfecting mankind's spaceflight skills between the Earth and the Moon. Artemis, like the Apollo program 50 years ago, consists of first orbiting the moon before landing on its surface (Dunbar, 2023; Inclán & Rydin, 2020).

The program's name is derived from Artemis, the Greek twin sister of Apollo, whose eponymous mission transported humans to the moon for the first time in 1969. Three Artemis missions are currently in progress:

Artemis I, the program's first mission, was launched in November 2022, an unmanned test flight of NASA's massive new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS, which is taller than the Statue of Liberty, and is estimated to cost $800 million per launch, will transport NASA's Orion spacecraft on a 1.4 million-mile-long endeavour towards the lunar orbit in subsequent missions (Hambleton, 2018). NASA declared the two-week mission a success, but the data collected has yet to be analyzed (Artemis Program: How UCF Is Powering Humankind’s Return to the Moon, n.d.; Hamblen, n.d.). The Artemis II mission builds on Artemis I, except it includes a human crew.

Figure 4 - NASA’s Orion Artemis I spacecraft orbiting the Moon ('NASA's Orion', n.d.).

Artemis II is the second planned mission of NASA's Artemis program and the first crewed flight of NASA's Orion spacecraft, which is currently scheduled for launch from the SLS in November 2024. During the mission, the SLS will lift off the crew in the Orion capsule from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida and place them on course for a lunar landing. To achieve this, the SLS must be powerful enough to perform a maneuver known as Trans-Lunar Injection. (TLI). This movement propels the spacecraft from Earth orbit straight to the moon’s orbit (Biesbroek & Janin, 2000). During Artemis II, such a tremendous push will be provided by Orion's European Service Module (ESM), the spacecraft's principal power and propulsion component (Hambleton, 2023). This will allow more mass to be sent to the moon in a single expedition (cargo and astronauts) rendering space exploration easier and safer. The journey is expected to take about 10 days and will send the crew beyond the moon, possibly further than any human has travelled in history. However, the exact distance has yet to be confirmed. When Orion returns, it will fire its main engine to complete the TLI maneuver at perigee, the closest point in the Moon's orbit to Earth (Foust, 2015; Hambleton, 2023). Artemis II, with four astronauts on board, will allow for a full review of Orion's life support systems, yet this time no human will set foot on the moon. Artemis II is intended to pave the way for more complex landing missions.

The team of astronauts who will conduct the first crewed lunar journey of the past five decades was revealed earlier this month. As part of NASA's commitment to increase the diversity of its exploration missions, this time the crew includes a woman, Christina Koch, who will be the first female astronaut assigned to a lunar mission, and Victor Glover, the first person of color to do so as well (Kraft & Huot, 2023). They will travel around the moon with Reid Wiseman and Jeremy Hansen late next year. While the astronauts will not land on the moon, the Artemis II mission will pave the way for a future team to land there (Inclán & Rydin, 2020; Wattles & Strickland, 2023).

Figure 5- NASA: Artemis II crew (Kraft & Huot, 2023).

Artemis III, which is set to launch later this decade, will be the first manned lunar landing since the Apollo program concluded in 1972. The astronauts are expected to explore the lunar surface and conduct scientific research, including sampling water ice previously discovered on the moon in 1971. NASA's Artemis program consists of four major components that are vital to securing a successful and long-term lunar landing. The four astronauts will be transported across space by the Orion spacecraft, which is equipped with life support systems and shuttle interfaces. The team will then dock onto the NASA-built Lunar Gateway, a small space station orbiting the moon designed as a flexible platform for the long-term return of humans to the lunar surface. The gateway will also serve as a base for further space exploration including missions to Mars (Elburn, 2023; Lloyd et al., 2022). The Lunar Gateway will not be permanently occupied, unlike the International Space Station (ISS), but rather act as a platform where astronauts may spend some time living and doing research.

Two astronauts are then transferred to the moon's South Pole, an area hitherto unexplored by mankind. The Human Landing System (known as HLS) secures the human landing on the moon, and is being developed in close partnership with SpaceX (Lloyd et al., 2022; Witt & Rowe, 2021). SpaceX is a California-based American corporation that creates, manufactures, and markets cutting-edge rockets and spacecrafts. Elon Musk, a business tycoon and investor, founded the company in 2002 with the stated goal of reducing the cost of space transportation to enable the colonization of Mars and revolutionize space technology. While Apollo's lunar landing module was built for a round journey to the moon's surface, the Artemis landing technology was designed to be used for multiple flights. Finally, the Space Launch System (SLS) ties all of these components together. The initial launch that propels the crew and spacecraft beyond Earth's atmosphere and into space will be carried out by this super heavy-lift rocket, the world's most powerful rocket (Witt & Rowe, 2021). However, most of the equipment required for the trip, such as space suits to access the moon and a lunar module to transport astronauts to the lunar surface, is still a work in progress. The SLS has been in development at NASA for most of the last decade, enduring multiple delays and rising costs.

Figure 6 - NASA picks SpaceX to land Artemis astronauts to the moon (Witt & Rowe, 2022).


For centuries mankind has been fascinated by understanding Mars, motivating astronomers, science fiction writers and a number of entrepreneurs to embark on their own adventures. However, the billion-dollar question remains: will humans ever set foot on Mars? Humans are naturally tempted to explore, investigate, and learn as much as possible about the natural world and what surrounds them. While not always simple, it is in our nature. After the Apollo moon landings in the 1970s, sending humans to Mars seemed like the next logical step, but it would be a huge political and economic leap. While it took the Apollo astronauts just four days to reach the moon, with current technology it would take them more than half a year to reach Mars. Taking into account that a spacecraft leaves Earth at a speed of about 24,600 miles per hour (about 39,600 km/h), the journey to Mars will take about seven months and cover over 300 million miles (480 million kilometers). A round trip, on the other hand, could take two or three years as the planets have to align favorably for a successful return. During this time, the astronauts would need food, water and oxygen, but also radiation protection. NASA's SLS rocket, Orion spacecraft, HLS, and the Lunar Gateway are paving the way for a long-term return to the Moon for scientific discoveries, economic rewards, and inspiration for a new generation. Throughout the Artemis program, NASA will work with its partners to fine-tune precision landing technologies, build rovers and create new mobility capabilities to enable exploration of additional regions of the Moon and later landing on Mars. For the Artemis missions, NASA has selected areas around the moon's South Pole. Although the region's features hold potential for groundbreaking scientific discoveries in space, the extreme and harsh environmental conditions make it difficult for humans to land, live and operate there. All of these groundbreaking advances lay the groundwork for NASA's Artemis Project. What was once thought to be science fiction is now becoming a conceivable reality.

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Maria Inês Marreiros

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