NASA updates Artemis Plan for returning astronauts to the Moon in 2024
NASA has released an updated outline of its Artemis program to return US astronauts to the Moon and set up a permanent human presence there, beginning with the landing of the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024.
It's been almost 50 years since the last astronauts left the Moon during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Fast forward to 2020 and NASA has been tasked to pursue an aggressive, open-ended program to not only land astronauts on the Moon, but to also set up a deep-space outpost, and lay the groundwork for both a permanent moon base and the first crewed mission to Mars.
NASA says the Artemis Lunar Exploration Program has made considerable progress over the past 18 months. Despite large cost overruns the giant Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is undergoing final ground tests, which will end with a hot fire test in the next two months before being shipped to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for final assembly and integration with the Orion spacecraft.
Once the SLS is cleared for flight, the first Orion mission, Artemis I, will lift off in 2021 for an autonomous cislunar test to check the life support, communication, and other systems. This will be followed by the crewed Artemis II in 2023, during which the astronauts will separate from the interim cryogenic propulsion stage and then practice manually approaching and moving away from it as a rehearsal for future rendezvous, proximity operations, and docking maneuvers during the Artemis III and later missions.
Meanwhile, NASA will use commercial delivery services to land instruments and technology demonstrators on the Moon twice a year, beginning next year, as a way to learn more about potential landing areas and develop technology for crewed operations.
The main event is planned for 2024. Artemis III will launch and the Orion will either dock with a lunar lander to bring the astronauts to the surface, or with the Gateway outpost before transferring to the lander. The Gateway outpost's components are scheduled for integration in 2023, though whether the semi-autonomous station will be used for Artemis III has yet to be determined. However, it is expected that it will be able to carry out space weather experiments autonomously before the first visits.
Eventually, Gateway will be used as a staging area for launching and coordinating crewed surface missions, including the construction of the Artemis Base Camp which will be home to new rovers, power systems, and habitats.
"With bipartisan support from Congress, our 21st-century push to the Moon is well within America’s reach," says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "As we’ve solidified more of our exploration plans in recent months, we’ve continued to refine our budget and architecture. We’re going back to the Moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits, and inspiration for a new generation of explorers. As we build up a sustainable presence, we’re also building momentum toward those first human steps on the Red Planet."
NASA's updated Artemis Plan/Lunar Exploration Program overview is available here.