The U.S. space agency is preparing to launch its most powerful rocket ever — the “Mega Moon Rocket” — as part of an ambitious program to eventually put humans back on the Moon a half century after they landed there that would help explore the possibility of sending astronauts to Mars.
After several delays, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) aims to launch its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and unmanned Orion spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on September 20. The launch is part of the Artemis program, a series of missions to build a long-term human presence at the Moon for decades to come. The first spaceflight in the mission, named Artemis I, will test the SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft, which will circle the Moon.
Artemis I is aimed at demonstrating Orion’s systems in a spaceflight environment and ensuring a safe re-entry, descent, splashdown and recovery before the first flight with crew on Artemis II, set tentatively for May 2024.
Once the Artemis I rocket is thrown into space, Orion will separate and begin circling the Moon before returning back to Earth after 35 days.
With Artemis, NASA is collaborating with three other space agencies: the European Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
With Artemis, NASA’s aim is to explore the possibility of sending humans to Mars. If successful, the program will put humans back on the Moon for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Artemis involves establishing a space station called the Lunar Gateway, similar to the International Space Station, that will orbit the Moon and provide short-term habitation for a small crew of astronauts while they shuttle up and down to the Moon to conduct experiments.
The long-term goal is to set up a permanent base camp on the Moon and lay the foundation to explore the possibility of sending astronauts to Mars.
“It started during the Cold War, where the U.S. and the Soviet Union competed with each other and the space race was a part of that. This led to the Apollo program, where the U.S. landed the first astronauts on the moon,” Howells said. NASA acknowledges that competition with the Soviet Union sparked the start of space exploration. “The Space Age started in 1957 with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik,” states NASA on its website.
The Apollo program led to massive growth of the space industry, infrastructure and jobs across the United States. While Artemis is an American-led mission, it is collaborating with 21 nations that have signed the Artemis Accords, a bilateral agreement for expanding space exploration. Because NASA is able to finance a program that no other country could do individually, nations have been keen to contribute to advance their space capabilities and give their research communities an opportunity to conduct experiments on the Moon.
NASA hopes to put the first woman and the first person of colour on the Moon. If Artemis I is successful, the program will move forward with plans for a crewed Artemis II launch in 2024, a crewed Artemis III mission landing on the Moon in 2025 and Artemis IV docking with the Lunar Gateway station in 2027.