NASA’s New Moon Missions Are Happening Really Soon

Robot astronaut gazing at the moon

NASA first landed a human on the moon back in 1969, and last achieved the feat in December 1972. In the intervening years, there have been few other missions to Earth’s primary natural satellite. A smattering of uncrewed craft have crashed into the surface, while a mere handful of missions have achieved a soft landing, with none successful from 1976 to 2013.

However, NASA aims to resume missions to the lunar surface, albeit in an uncrewed capacity at this stage. And you won’t have to wait very long, either. The world’s premier space agency aims to once again fly to the Moon beginning in February 2022.

The first mission will be known as Artemis-1. It serves as a flight test for the broader Artemis program, which is NASA’s effort to return humans to the Moon. It will mark the first flight of NASA’s long-awaited Space Launch System, as well as the first flight of a non-development Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV) capsule. Launching from Kennedy Space Center, the mission duration will be a full 25 and a half days, with the Orion craft spending six of those in Lunar orbit.

NASA reported that the spacecraft was stacked up successfully on October 20. The vehicle was assembled in the aptly named Vehicle Assembly Building, and is the first super heavy-lift spacecraft to be built there since Apollo 17 in 1972.

Thus, Artemis-1 will be the beginning of a new era for NASA as it attempts to replicate its glorious past achievements. Let’s take a look at the hardware they’ll use to do so.

Space Launch System

An artist’s impression of the Space Launch System stacked up on the launch pad. Credit: NASA, public domain

The Space Launch System is NASA’s new super-heavy lift rocket. It aims to serve roughly the same purpose as the Saturn V known so well for its role in the Apollo program.

The rocket’s first stage, also known as the core stage, runs four RS-25 rocket engines burning cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen, previously seen serving as the Space Shuttle Main Engine. Early examples of the Space Launch System will use refurbished Space Shuttle engines, before NASA transitions over to the simplified RS-25E design for future builds. The engines will be treated as expendable in Space Launch System flights.

Two solid-fuel booster rockets also assist the first stage, reusing casings from the boosters used on the old Space Shuttle. The boosters have had a redesign with new avionics and some other modifications, and will eliminate the parachute recovery system previously used. Instead, the boosters will be allowed to crash to Earth, similarly being treated as expendable.

The upper stage of the rocket is termed the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS). It’s based on the Delta IV launch system, but has been stretched and upgraded to human-rated specification for use in future crewed flights. The ICPS runs a single RL10 engine running on cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen, and is responsible for orbital injection as well as trans-lunar injection duty.

Standing 111 meters high, and 8.4 meters in diameter, the Space Launch System is almost identical in height to the Saturn V but around 1.5 meters slimmer. The later Block 2 models are intended to carry approximately 130,000 kg to lower-earth orbit, comparable to the the Saturn V’s capabilities to loft 140,000 kg to the same region.

Despite the similarities, the Space Launch System does outperform its predecessor in some areas. The Block 1 vehicle that flies next year will develop 39.1 MegaNewtons of thrust, a full 15% greater than that of the Saturn V. It’s still less than the 45.4 megaNewtons promised by the Soviet N1 of the 1960s, however the N1 never flew successfully.

The Space Launch System has faced significant controversy during its development period. Literally being built out of old Space Shuttle parts doesn’t say much for its high-tech credentials. Indeed, the launcher’s performance specs are hardly surprising given that its main stage rocket engines rely on designs first drawn up in the 1970s.

However, NASA needs a big rocket if it’s ever going to return to the Moon, let alone chase its longer-term goals of establishing a permanent presence there and a visit to Mars. A successful unmanned flight will do a lot to re-establish the agency’s profile as a force in the space industry.


The Orion spacecraft, being lowered on to the Space Launch System at the Vehcile Assembly Building. Credit: NASA, public domain

The Orion capsule is a spacecraft that will serve as the crewed module in NASA’s Artemis program. It’s designed primarily to sit atop the Space Launch System, complete with a tower launch escape system to separate the vehicle in the event of an emergency.

Only the Orion Crew Module returns to Earth. Designed as a truncated cone with a blunt spherical end, the basic design is similar to the Apollo CSM that took astronauts to the moon back in 1969. However, Orion is slightly larger in diameter, with reportedly 50% more volume, and room for four to six astronauts inside. The Crew Module is designed to support long-duration crewed missions of up to 21 days duration.  Total weight of the crew module is approximately 8500 kg. Recovery of the Orion Crew Module is via splashdown, with parachutes used to slow the rate of descent as in prior designs.

The Orion spacecraft has many modern amenities however, which differentiate it from the earlier Apollo designs. It features a full glass cockpit derived from systems used on the Boeing 787, as well as autodocking capability to handle rendezvous with other spacecraft.

Orion sports an AJ-10 hypergolic rocket engine as its primary propulsion. Six custom engines from Airbus are used for the reaction control system, along with eight R-4D-11 engines as well.

It bears noting that Orion will not be used for lunar landing, however. Instead, current plans involve the Orion spacecraft docking with a specially-designed SpaceX Starship, known as the Human Landing System, in lunar orbit. Astronauts would then transfer to the Starship for lunar landing, and would return to the Orion craft for the journey back to Earth.

Mission Goals

Cubesats sitting in the Orion stage adapter. Credit: NASA, public domain

The mission will serve as a full test of the combination of the Space Launch System and the Orion module.  The aim is that the successful Artemis-1 mission will be followed by a crewed launch for Artemis-2, which will follow in late 2023. Artemis-3 is then intended to land on the moon sometime in 2024, though given delays thus far, it’s expected that this timeline may be pushed out further.

Main payloads for the mission include the Matroshka AstroRad Radiation Experiment, which aims to measure radiation doses that could be absorbed by tissue in the regions of space beyond lower-earth orbit. It will also test the AstroRad radiation vest developed by StemRad, which aims to protect bone marrow and vital human organs from radiation in space. This will be achieved with two female mannequins designed for medical imaging tests, one wearing the vest, and the other unprotected. It’s hoped this data will help inform spacecraft design for further deep-space missions, such as an eventual landing on Mars.

The Artemis-1 mission will also carry many secondary payloads. Ten CubeSats will travel on the mission, including BioSentinel, which will take a living microorganism beyond lower-earth orbit to study the effects of space radiation. Others include the Lunar IceCube, which will search for water ice on the Moon, as well as LunIR, which will do surface studies of the Moon using spectroscopy and thermography.

Overall, Artemis-1 is a mission that will be a huge milestone for NASA in terms of getting back to the capability it had in the 1960s. Given the fraught political and economic environment on Earth, it’s been a difficult road for the agency, and a manned mission to the Moon, let alone Mars, still seems like a far-off possibility. Artemis-1 could be the stepping stone that gets humanity to believe, once again.

40 thoughts on “NASA’s New Moon Missions Are Happening Really Soon

    1. Wrong. In terms of % GDP, Nasa’s budget has been around 50% of what it was during the Apollo years–when the US was throwing everything including the kitchen sink to beat the Soviets. 50 years post-Apollo we have all sorts of tools (e.g. computers) that should make rocket engineering a much cheaper affair. Case-in-point: SpaceX has built new tech rockets for a fraction of the cost of the SLS.

      The problem is not lack of budget. It is lack of mission focus, leadership, and inspiration.

  1. My feeling is why bother at this point – an expensive non-reusable rocket which would have been a big deal in the 1970’s but today seems to be outdated if you compare it to the upcomming Spacex Starship. Seems almost criminal to take four of the re-usable Shuttle engines and use them only once more. Let alone having to buy the service module from Europe – cause the U.S. can’t even afford to build that. Face the music Nasa – scrap it the too late to the game SLS and use the money to do better things.

    1. Seems like many Nasa projects budgets and politics have the driver and co-drivers seats, leaving the scientist and engineers needing to scramble around with what they can get.

      That said I don’t personally see much issue using parts you have in stock that are otherwise obsolete – if you still flew shuttles but were not making new spares as they are about to be retired its a waste of parts needed to keep the shuttles going longer, but nothing else is going to use those engines re-usably, its too old a design to be worth it. So using it for at least some of the return to the moon mission actually makes sense.

      Being used as disposable is something SpaceX do often enough too, its required for some flight plans – not like anything in space is cheap and easy – so as long as you keep a few old shuttle engines around in the museum, in parts, cut open, whole really doesn’t matter much…

      1. “Seems like many Nasa projects budgets and politics have the driver and co-drivers seats,”

        Ya think?

        It’s not just about reusing parts you have in stock, though. It’s about keeping the same people and engineers employed.

        1. The people and engineers could be better used in the private sector or to develop bigger and better hydrolox engines as an evolution of the RS-25 design, no just maintain it for the sake of having a job

    2. Agreed. I’d rather see a reusable system based around the Falcon-9 or Heavy to get to orbit. Then have a space only vessel use to get from earth orbit to lunar orbit. Then have your lunar lander. More upfront effort with much lower recurring cost.

      1. Nice idea, but only worth it if you intend to keep going back, so far there really isn’t any real want or desire to be on the moon beyond political grandstanding – no important resources, no new research that really has to be on the Moon, no great military gain in showing you can get there again…

        There are things that it would be nice if such a repeatable cheap to run system was built – most of the experiments on the ISS would work just fine on the Moon, and have more space easily to run more at once for instance – but unless you are doing those sort of things so frequent visits are actually needed a disposable launch vehicle is both cheaper overall and much more efficient as you are not wasting lots of launch mass to build the transit vehicle, supply fuel for it etc.

        1. Build a radio telescope on the far side of the moon. Could be much larger than on earth. Would be insulated from radio noise noise. Similar for optical.

          Resources: Lots of titanium and you’re in a much smaller gravity well. Less energy to get resources off the moon than earth.

          1. But the resources you might find (and that the moment its very much might – we have so few samples of the Moon or other data points to really know what it is made of) are only more useful if you are pushing into space, which nobody seems to be even remotely planning – no point at all getting them off the moon easily to then just push them down the gravity well – at least while we have so many resources on Earth still…

            I would love to see a more complete effort to space that makes a lunar base or two, some lagragne stations etc a reality, I just don’t see it happening all that soon, and I’m not convinced it should happen any time soon, we have enough problems of our making down here to deal with that should be more important (and I’m not just talking climate change).

      1. No. Apollo-Soyuz was launched on A Saturn 1B, like the Skylab crew launches. The Saturn V that launched the Skylab space station was the last heavy lift rocket assembled in the VAB until SLS.

  2. “The world’s premier space agency…”

    I have a lot of respect for NASA.
    I have had the pleasure of working with quite a few people there, on several different projects over the years.
    But they are definitely not The Premier Space Agency anymore.
    (Unless you insist on counting every Civilian “space” Company based in the USA as part of NASA. Which would be pretty dumb.)

    The USA is FAR too Hyper-Capitalist, and NASA’s budget has been cut far too much in the last 3 decades for it to maintain it’s crown.
    There are just too many people,even right here in the comments, that will only ask “What is the point of this mission if it isn’t going to make me money?”

    The “point” is to explore. And to gather new knowledge.

    It might not be the MOST IMPORTANT THING we could be doing. But we don’t seem to be working very hard on the bigger issues like erasing poverty, hunger, racism, or sexism.

    We also don’t seem to be stopping the immediate destruction of the planet we are on (unless someone rich can make a buck off it…) so maybe we SHOULD be prioritizing space research.

    We haven’t landed a human on Luna in nearly 50 years. We don’t even know how to do it with our current equipment.

    So yeah… It’s important…

    1. Ian, I couldn’t help but notice your comment is longer than everyone else’s comments. What aspect of NASA is too capitalistic? You failed to mention what you’re talking about specifically. Do people in Europe not still criticize their space program that costs a fraction of NASA? I think things that are complicated will always be criticized by the public because the average person knows very little about very much. I fail to see why you think the public’s opinion matters.

      NASA (USA Congress) has spent 40 years developing the SLS. They called it different things over the years, National Launch System, ARES 1 & V, DIRECT 1.0, 2.0+, Jupiter Launch Vehicle and all the paper studies that became national policy for a short time while eating up hundreds of millions of dollars without bending any metal. Every time
      a new President’s people would declare these programs incapable of reaching a finish line, they’d be canceled and Congress would start a new project identical to the last. The name would change but all the hardware would remain essentially the same. Shuttle derived hardware with all the fixed prices of the Shuttle Program baked in. “We need the jobs”, Bla, bla bla

      Government employee’s worked on these launch system. Around 1.6 to 2 billion dollar a year on again, off again. No progress, no cost competitiveness. Just recession proof jobs for mainly congressional districts that are intellectual backwaters, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida. Why, because politics is a business of telling people what they want to hear and workers in these places want to believe that they deserve a quality job, even if the product they’re making won’t ever be done, because it’s not supposed to ever be done. That would cause the money to dry up and the jobs to go away and we can’t have that can we.

      Now look at what’s going on in USA. There have been more launch vehicle companies (mainly in USA) founded in the last 5 years than there has been in history. Don’t believe me? Look it up. This is mainly due to SpaceX showing that all this time it’s been the will to accomplish reduced launch prices, not the physics or engineering causing stagnation. The government didn’t accomplish a reduction in price, those pesky capitalist did it. Investor’s know this now. The Gates Are Open.

  3. Lewin Day, The Orion isn’t going to a space station out “near” the orbit of the moon because that’s the current plan. The plan became that because Orion is to heavy to go into lunar orbit thus it can’t be used directly for lunar landings. The reason it was designed and built.

    I’ll give you credit for mentioned the controversy around SLS. I’d like to politely suggest that instead of repeating NASA press releases that describe the Orion as necessary or listing facts from wikipedia, just listen to people who really do follow the space program and can point you in the right direction. That’s bound to produce articles that will increase the profit margins of Hackaday by some tangible amount. Ran Simburg and Robert Zimmerman might be full of shit 30% of the time but they still understand the problem at hand well enough to relay it to the public in a way that isn’t an insult to ones intelligence. By treating Orion as if it has a future you’re denying you’ve been paying attention.

  4. Hey Lewin Day, Sorry to trash you excessively. I know you’re probably just the one who drew the short straw on this article but your time table is also incorrect. The first mission to fly to the moon has been delayed another year to 2025. This happend a few days before you published this article. For every year of SLS development, the SLS program’s schedule slips by greater than one year. That should tell you something. These missions to the moon aren’t happening soon.

  5. Well actually the Apollo 17 launcher was the last crewed Saturn V to be built there, the one that stuck Skylab there was the last one. We also assembled the Saturn 1B mission vehicles there, all four of them. (There’s also a second Skylab hanging around but that’s besides the point.

  6. Honest question. Why re-use museum piece repurposed Shuttle technology to go to the moon? Instead, could they re-use Apollo technology to go to the moon that has already been successful?

    I know, I understand there are a *million* reasons why not, but as a thought experiment.

    I worked in oil and gas for a brief period of time, and we always talked about new technology needing to jump a huge gap to be profitable (or you can call it successful). Existing technology, being modified constantly, is hard to catch up to so that new tech has to be (making up number, that job was 20 yrs ago) like 20% “better” just to be the same or, better yet, competitive.

    I hope that rambling makes sense.

    1. They are re-using the Shuttle engines and solid booster parts because they were already built, and sitting in a warehouse. Apollo technology no longer exists, and would need to be re-designed/re-created. The original goal for the SLS was to save money by re-using Shuttle parts that were no longer needed.

      1. Yes, but do they have large enough stock of the space shuttle parts to justify investing so heavily in this project? What do they do when they run out of space shuttle engines? Build more?

    2. It’s better to slightly improve old tech, then to constantly come up with “newest shiny thing” ™. This was tested in the Shuttle, and only improved. Has much more chance to succeed at once than Bezos’ or Musk’ new thing (which exploded 15 times during testing).

      1. If all we do is slightly improve old technology we have a very limited and uninspiring future in space. Going back to the moon with basically 1969 technology will only lead to the same expensive mistakes made the first time we went there. There is no future in throw away rockets.

      2. You seem to misunderstand the SpaceX development process behind Starship. They are using a rapidly iterating process. Design, Build, Test, Repeat.

        By building and testing so many rockets you can quickly update your designs and processes to account for manufacturing changes and optimisations.

        That is why we could NEVER rebuild an F-1 engine even though we have all the plans. The guys on the shop floor changed the designs on the fly just so they could build the things, and those changes were never documented, and they were critical in the success of the engine.

        So buy Building, Testing, Flying, and Exploding you learn so much more, so much faster than by having a bunch of designers and engineers sitting in a room crunching numbers constantly. The test is analysed, failure modes are found, designs are iterated, and you wind up with a design that has had all the weak points discovered and fixed rather than remaining unknowns.

        As a final plus, the entire Starship program still has cost way less than SLS by orders of magnitude, and has flown hardware many many more times.

  7. NASA no longer has what it takes to advance manned space flight, hence the old technology. Fly-once-and-throw-away is a very expensive approach, but NASA can’t master reusable parts – that will require private companies that can take risks in development. Politics have caused the de-evolution of NASA and will continue to keep them from becoming competent once more (in manned space flight…their robotic missions are gold).

    I am no longer convinced we need manned spaceflight in the near future – robots seem to be a much faster and practical approach. As AI advances so will the robotic capabilities. Manned space flight is just expensive and full of unneeded risks. We need to be working on returning samples, not on sending a few people to a distant hostile place where little science can be achieved at the location.

  8. The shuttle had its own explosive failures. It also only had 135 launches in the entire 34 year program. SpaceX did 26 in 2021. In terms of improving iteratively through experience, I’ll take SpaceX over the shuttle program.

    Fun but meaningless number, 40% of all shuttles exploded. (They only made 5).

    Iterative improvements can only go so far. There can be inherent design limitations, that require a total redesign from scratch to get around.

  9. I have always said that NASA needs to abandon rockets. They should now procure launches from the private sector exclusively. That way they can focus their effort on science, exploration, and developing the next generation of space technology.

    NASA needs to send landers to Europa, develop prototype next-gen high performance engines, upgrade and expand the DSN with a communications network throughout the solar system. They should push the limits further and further, and let commercial providers fill the space they just opened up.

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