What Is Artemis I? Breaking Down the Major Moon Mission NASA Just Launched

On Wednesday morning during the quiet hours of twilight, a 32-story rocket blasted into space from a launchpad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. In a burst of flames and smoke, the citrus-colored vessel brightened the dark sky with a synthetic sunset as it propelled a little white spacecraft toward none other than Earth’s glowing companion, the moon.

At last, the Artemis I lunar mission has lifted off.

Initially, Artemis I’s launch had been planned for Aug. 29, but an engine issue forced the attempt to be scrubbed — try No. 2 on Sept. 2 was also a no-go, but lucky No. 3 appears to be a tremendous success. With space missions, however, the future is never really quite certain, and liftoff really was only the beginning of Artemis I’s journey. Nonetheless, after years of delays and wads of extra money, Artemis I’s starry excursion has begun, and the launch was a sight for the ages.

The crowd watching Artemis I's launch is in tears, holding phones to record the show.

Thousands at Kennedy Space Center watched Artemis I hit the sky.


Keegan Barber/NASA

Though the vehicle that was commissioned for this endeavor — formally named the Space Launch System and also renowned as the most powerful rocket in the world — didn’t usher astronauts to the moon’s surface this time around, Artemis I is kind of NASA’s golden ticket to new adventures in outer space. 

Showing off the brilliant orange hue of its insulated spray-on coating, Artemis I’s SLS helped carry instruments to lunar orbit that’ll soon gather vital information for the Artemis II mission, which will bring humans along, to orbit the lunar sphere. Then, Artemis II will pave the way for Artemis III, a 2025 mission that may, at last, add more boot prints to the powdery gray soil, alongside those imprinted decades ago by Apollo astronauts. And that’s just an overview of the first three steps of NASA’s Artemis odyssey.

Eventually, this program is poised to let NASA accomplish thrilling feats like landing the first woman and the first person of color on the moon, building a lunar base camp, constructing a spaceship in lunar orbit, connecting an off-world internet, and even laying the groundwork for a future in which humankind settles Mars.

“When we think about Artemis, we focus a lot on the moon,” Reid Wiseman, chief astronaut at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said in an Aug. 5 press conference. “But I just want everybody in the room and everybody watching to remember our sights are not set on the moon. Our sights are set clearly on Mars.”

It's dusk, and the top of NASA's orange SLS rocket attached to the white Orion spacecraft is seen with a brilliant, glowing moon in the background.

Earth’s moon is seen rising behind the SLS rocket with the Orion spacecraft aboard.


Aubrey Gemignani/NASA

All things considered, Artemis I is such a big deal because the success of this mission will dictate the timeline for NASA’s sci-fi moon objectives. 

You can think of Artemis I as an extremely high-stakes precursor to everything that comes next for American lunar exploration, founded on everything that came before. 

Before launching into space, the SLS even got situated for its big day on launchpad 39B, poetically standing where NASA’s Saturn V once stood for Apollo 10. Not only did Apollo 10 christen 39B, but it also illuminated the way for Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s historic landing on the glowing orb (with Michael Collins orbiting patiently in the Command Module). 

“To all of us that gaze up at the moon, dreaming of the day humankind returns to the lunar surface,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a press conference, “folks, we’re here — we are going back. And our journey begins with Artemis I.”

Now let’s talk about some Artemis I specifics.

Artemis I 101

There are two major components to the Artemis I space explorer: an apricot-colored SLS rocket and a conical, white spacecraft dubbed Orion. Prior to launch, Orion topped the SLS like the spire of a castle tower.

And within Orion, there’s a lot going on. It’s basically the cabin car of Artemis I. 

Inside this uncannily retro craft, NASA strapped in Amazon Alexa, TV character Shaun the Sheep, a few Girl Scout space science badges and other pop culture icons. But on the other hand, the agency filled it with some hard-core science equipment, such as satellites, radiation detectors, human stand-ins, freeze-dried yeast for biology experiments and miscellaneous data collection tools. 

Ultimately, the goal was for the superpowerful SLS to propel Orion toward lunar orbit. So far, everything seems to be going swell. Orion is on its way.

An illustration of the Orion spacecraft barreling through space, in the bottom left, Earth is seen in the background.

NASA’s depiction of the Orion spacecraft leaving Earth’s vicinity and heading to lunar orbit.


NASA

And during its trip, all the fun bric-a-brac will be baptized into the extraterrestrial club, science mechanisms will detail what the trajectory looks and feels like, and the humanlike mannequins will react to dangerous aspects of space travel, like radiation absorption, for assessment on the ground. Once complete, Orion is expected to safely splash down off the coast of San Diego. 

If you’re into the technicalities, a detailed look at the SLS launch sequence can be found here.

“Orion will venture farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown,” Nelson said. “And after its long flight test, Orion will come home faster and hotter than any spacecraft has before. It’s going to hit the Earth’s atmosphere at 32 times the speed of sound.”

This bit might be especially important if, as the agency hopes, the SLS and Orion design supports future missions written to one day access Mars, and maybe even deep space. According to Nelson, if Orion were to return to Earth from a Martian expedition, it might reach velocities around 36 times the speed of sound. 

Lucky for us spacegazers (yes, I meant to not say stargazers), Orion also has cameras installed so we can watch what’s happening as it pursues its expedition. “We’re going to try and catch the Earthrise,” Rick LaBrode, lead flight director at Johnson Space Center, said excitedly in a press conference. “That’s a spectacular image.” 

earthrise

Earthrise, taken during Apollo 8, the first crewed voyage to the moon’s environs.


Bill Anders/NASA

Even as Orion began ascending from our planet, NASA started to broadcast a livestream of its perspective. “We intend to bring each and every one of you along throughout the course of the mission,” Mike Sarafin, Artemis mission manager, said during the press conference. “We will share imagery both from the ground as well as the launch vehicle on the spacecraft throughout.”

Earth is seen in the distance from Orion's perspective. A solar panel on the side of the capsule also peeks into the scene, as does part of the capsule itself.

A screenshot of the Orion livestream broadcast at 12:51 p.m. ET on Nov. 16.


NASA

OK, I’m on the edge of my seat. But what’s next?

Considering how much I write about the moon, I’ve often wondered what might’ve happened if NASA continued its Apollo program – uninhibited by Cold War tensions and budget-cut setbacks. 

Could there’ve been an international space station orbiting the moon? Might there have been lunar settlements? Or perhaps astronauts could’ve ridden from crater to crater in ATVs? Well, in a way, we might be about to find out. Artemis is sort of picking up where its Greek-namesake twin, Apollo, left off. (Apollo was a god, Artemis a goddess.) “This is now the Artemis generation,” Nelson said.

I mean, assuming everything goes to plan with all stages of Artemis, here are some things to look forward to in the coming decade or so. (OK, but to reiterate, a lot has to go to plan for any of this to happen.)

The Lunar Gateway
With the help of international space agencies from at least 18 other countries, NASA signed the Artemis Accords, which basically underscore principles required for peaceful space cooperation. Part of this agreement gave rise to an idea called the Lunar Gateway. The Lunar Gateway is a planned small space station that’ll sit in lunar orbit and serve as a solar-powered communication hub, science laboratory, habitation module for astronauts, holding center for rovers or robots and other such things. It’s like a moon ISS.

A structure that sort of resembles the International Space Station, with silver modules and solar panels at its extremities is shown in lunar orbit. The moon is seen toward the right of the image and far in the background, lies Earth.

A full-view rendering of the Lunar Gateway, which includes elements from international partners. Built with commercial and international partners, the Gateway will be critical to sustainable lunar exploration and will serve as a model for future missions to Mars, NASA says.


Alberto Bertolin/NASA

Already, in fact, NASA has sent a microwave oven-size satellite named Capstone to lunar orbit to tease out relevant information for the Gateway.

“Gateway’s capabilities for supporting sustained exploration and research in deep space include docking ports for a variety of visiting spacecraft, space for crew to live and work, and on-board science investigations to study heliophysics, human health, and life sciences, among other areas,” NASA said.

The LunaNet
We’ve also got the prospect of the LunaNet, which’ll serve the navigation, networking and other communication responsibilities of Artemis astronauts. “Astronaut safety and wellbeing are key concerns of the Artemis missions,” NASA’s search and rescue office mission manager for national affairs, Cody Kelly, said in a statement. “Using LunaNet’s navigation services, LunaSAR will provide location data to NASA distress beacons should contingencies arise.” 

An illustration of astronauts on the moon, one in the background and one behind the

Here’s what it might look like when astronauts have access to the LunaNet.


NASA

LTVs
Lunar terrain vehicles, or LTVs, are also planned for the future. These sort of roofless Jeep-like rovers will transport Artemis astronauts around the lunar South Pole when they get there. This invention is still very much in progress — understandably.

“Most people do a lot of research before buying a car,” Nathan Howard, project manager for the LTV at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said in a statement. “We’re doing extensive research for a modern space vehicle that will be provided by industry. As we plan for long-term exploration of the Moon, the LTV won’t be your grandfather’s Moon Buggy used during the Apollo missions.”

A foggy illustration shows a possible LTV design climbing up a hill. It has two seats, each covered with material that resembles foil and has a NASA logo. Far away, a potential moon rover is seen and even farther into the distance is a structure with rounded solar panels.

A NASA rendering of what the LTVs could look like on the moon one day.


NASA

Moon Base Camp
Perhaps the most exhilarating part of all of this is that if Artemis works out, we’ll have a legitimate base camp on the moon

On the powdery gray lunar surface, astronauts are seen working away with an LTV, another type of vehicle, a few structures and other things that comprise a potential base camp for the future.

An illustration of NASA astronauts at the lunar South Pole.


NASA

“To give astronauts a place to live and work on the Moon, the agency’s Artemis Base Camp concept includes a modern lunar cabin, a rover and even a mobile home,” NASA said. “Early missions will include short surface stays, but as the base camp evolves, the goal is to allow crew to stay at the lunar surface for up to two months at a time.”

Two months at a time, the agency said. It’s simply surreal to consider that the next many years could be filled with the level of lunar exploration that NASA believes the Artemis program can achieve. It might be why the punchy motto of these missions inspires goose bumps. 

“We are going.” Well, now, I guess it’s more accurate to say “We’re on our way.”

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During the dark hours early Wednesday morning, NASA’s Artemis I rocket touched the sky, at last.


NASA/Bill Ingalls

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