History was made early Wednesday morning as the rocket for the Artemis 1 mission launched from Kennedy Space Center. The uncrewed mission will orbit the moon in the first spaceflight of NASA’s Artemis program. Over the entire Artemis program, NASA plans to establish the first long-term lunar presence via a base camp on the moon, then will use what was learned from the moon development for a mission to send the first astronauts to Mars.
Founded as a school providing classes for NASA employees in the earliest days of that agency, Florida Tech has been closely associated with the space program since its inception. The Artemis mission is no different, as over 25 Florida Tech alumni are working on the mission as part of the Exploration Ground Systems crew.
We spoke with Florida Tech aerospace, physics and space sciences assistant professor Paula do Vale Pereira and Don Platt, associate professor of space systems, about the Artemis mission, what it could mean for future missions and more.
Q: What makes the Artemis rocket and mission significant?
Pereira: The Space Launch System (or SLS for short) is the rocket that is central to the Artemis mission. The SLS will be the third rocket in history to be capable of launching humans to the Moon. Previously, the American Saturn V and Soviet N1 had that capability – none of the four N1 launch attempts were successful, though. Thus, the SLS could become the second rocket to ever fly humans to the Moon.
The SLS has been under development for over a decade and one of its key technological differences from Saturn V is the focus on long-term, sustained access to the lunar surface. The SLS will power the Orion capsule to lunar orbit, where it will dock to the Lunar Gateway (currently under development). The Gateway will be a small space station orbiting the Moon and will have docking ports for the Orion capsule and different lander modules, such as SpaceX’s Starship. This coordinated infrastructure means that the SLS needs to carry only the Orion capsule and the crew, instead of having the carry the lander, command and service modules, as the Saturn V did.
Because they don’t need to bring all these other modules with them, a larger quantity of useful equipment and extra crew members can be brought along, opening doors for a longer and even more productive human presence on the Moon. The SLS rocket also has other architectures which, instead of carrying humans, can carry large amounts of cargo to the Gateway, which can then be transferred to the lunar surface. This cargo capacity will be fundamental in building the infrastructure necessary for humans to strive on the Moon.
Platt: Indeed, the SLS will be the largest launch vehicle ever flown and will put on a spectacular show on the Space Coast. This Artemis I mission will also test out the Orion capsule in deep space for an extended mission. The capability for the capsule to support human life in deep space will be demonstrated. As well, there are mannequins onboard Orion with radiation sensors in them. They will measure the radiation exposure in deep space and around the Moon to help verify how much radiation human astronauts may be exposed to. And I would add, much like the shuttle opened up Low Earth Orbit for all of humanity, Artemis will do the same for lunar exploration.
Q: What is the significance of Artemis to NASA-sponsored space exploration?
Platt: Artemis is the next major NASA human space program. It is also NASA’s first program to go back to the Moon since Apollo. It is designed to be the first in multiple efforts to expand human presence in space beyond Low Earth Orbit. It is also significant in that it has a goal to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon. So, this is an inclusive program to hopefully involve all of humanity in future human space exploration and one day settlement.
Q: How can moon-orbiting mission of Artemis help future space exploration?
Platt: We need to demonstrate modern capabilities to get large spacecraft that can support human exploration to the Moon. The first step is to place them in orbit to test them out and soon to get astronauts experience in that environment as well. Much like Apollo 8 first orbited the Moon before humans landed on the Moon in Apollo 11 we are now testing and demonstrating new technology and capabilities first in lunar orbit.
Pereira: I personally think the most important development in the Artemis mission is the coordination between different providers, especially the commercial partnership with companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin. The commercial partners will provide the lander systems which will take the astronauts from the Lunar Gateway to the lunar surface, a level of dependable trust that has only recently started to be common in NASA’s history.