NASA’s Orion spacecraft photographed the moon as it completed the Artemis I mission

After several delays and some minor damage from hurricanes, NASA successfully launched the Artemis 1 mission and jump-started its program to return to the Moon. Despite some problems with fuel leaks, NASA was able to fix the problem in time, allowing the new Space Launch System rocket to lift off early Wednesday, November 16, from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. While the Artemis I mission will not land on the lunar surface, the trip will be the first vehicle designed for human astronauts to travel through space. The mission completed a lunar flyby on Monday morning.

Orion takes pictures of the moon.
NASA

NASA’s Big Trip has no humans, but three astronauts: Helga, Zohar, and Munikin Campos. They are high-tech manikins – that’s the term for human models used in scientific research – loaded with sensors that will test how the human body responds to space travel. Helga and Zohar are designed to measure the effects of radiation on women’s bodies in space, and Munikin Campos will sit in the commander’s seat to track how uncomfortable a voyage to the moon might be for future human crew members. While these mannequins may not look particularly impressive on their own, they will play an important role in NASA’s ambitions to build a new path to the moon and, eventually, send astronauts to Mars. These are among several science experiments on a mission to better our understanding of space travel.

Liftoff was originally scheduled for August 29, but NASA postponed the launch after engineers encountered several problems, including a nearby thunderstorm and problems cooling one of the rocket’s engines. The launch was delayed again in September due to fuel leak problems, but was finally launched on November 16 at 1:47 a.m. ET.

When Orion completed its first lunar flyby this morning, it captured several images of the moon along the way. Finally, the spacecraft will return to Earth, completing a 1.3 million mile journey that will last 42 days.

Orion’s lunar flyby.
NASA

“It’s a good demonstration that the rocket works the way it’s supposed to,” Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, told Recode in August. “It will give NASA a little more confidence for crewed missions in the next few years.”

Artemis is the next generation of moon missions. It’s part of NASA’s larger ambitions for lunar exploration, which include astronaut treks across the lunar surface, a lunar human habitat and a new space station called Gateway. Artemis I also sets the stage for the next two missions in the Artemis program: Artemis 2 will send humans on a similar trip around the Moon in 2024, and Artemis 3 will make history by landing the first woman and the first person of color. On the lunar surface sometime in 2025, at the earliest. All of the research taking place on Artemis I – including Helga, Zohar and Munikin Campos – is aimed at preparing for the next mission.

All are Artemis 1

NASA’s Voyage to the Moon, SLS, was designed to carry an extremely heavy payload. The rocket is only a few meters taller than the Statue of Liberty and can generate 8.8 million pounds of thrust. Like other launch systems, the SLS is designed with several stages, each of which plays a role in overcoming Earth’s gravity, penetrating the atmosphere, and reaching space. To make this happen, the SLS includes twin solid rocket boosters, as well as a 212-foot-tall core stage filled with more than 700,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. It is the largest core stage ever built by NASA.

A view of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion spacecraft from the Launch Control Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images

Although technically new, SLS is based on older technology. Several of its components, including its main engine, are either from or based on systems used by the NASA Space Shuttle program, which ended in 2011. And while other space launches have begun using reusable, or at least partially reusable, rocket boosters, the SLS will only fly once. This distinguishes SLS from Starship, the super-heavy launch vehicle that SpaceX is designing for missions to the Moon. SpaceX, which beat out Blue Origin for the $2.9 billion contract to build NASA’s lunar landing system, expects the Starship’s first orbital test flight to take place sometime in the next four months. Congress’s decision to fund SLS is an ongoing sore point within the space industry because the project has gone billions over budget and been delayed several times, and because private companies are now developing less expensive alternatives.

“Congress is behind schedule, with overbudgets, because SLS has flowed money and jobs to key congressional districts,” explained Whitman Cobb.

There is broad-based support for Orion, which NASA designed specifically for the Artemis mission, as well as possible trips to nearby asteroids or Mars. The spacecraft was built by Lockheed Martin and from the outside, it looks like a giant turkey buster with wing-like panels on its sides. Orion is home to the Artemis crew module, where astronauts will eventually spend their time traveling to and from the moon. Once the spacecraft is validated for human astronauts, the crew module is expected to offer a variety of space travel amenities, including sleeping bags, an assortment of new NASA-recipe space food bars, and a modified space toilet designed for zero gravity and all humans. gender

In this mission, the primary passengers are a collection of science experiments. One experiment involved NASA mannequins Zohar and Helga, made of 38 slices of plastic designed to mimic human tissue, as well as more than 5,600 sensors and 34 radiation detectors. There are high levels of radiation in space, a source of ongoing concern that future astronauts may face higher cancer risks, especially as space travel becomes longer and more ambitious. Both of these manikins were designed with breasts and uterus because women are more sensitive to radiation. Zohar will also wear a special protective vest called AstroRad, which engineers are evaluating as a possible way to protect astronauts from radiation, including during solar flares. Helga won’t get a vest, and will allow NASA to study how much AstroRad actually helped.

Orion is also carrying an experiment meant to test how yeast reacts to radiation. The researchers plan to store freeze-dried yeast under one of the Orion crew seats and then release the yeast as a liquid within three days in space. Once Orion returns to Earth, scientists will study how it works by analyzing the yeast’s DNA. The experiment could provide insight into how humans can stay healthy in space during future trips.

Orion approaches the moon.
NASA

A version of Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is also taking off. NASA is testing Callisto, a combination of customized hardware and software designed by Amazon, Cisco and Lockheed Martin to communicate with astronauts. The test will enable mission control to send audio and video messages to a tablet aboard the Orion capsule, where a version of Alexa will receive the message and share a response. Although the technology may sound a bit like HAL 2001: A Space OdysseyEngineers say the system is intended to provide support and companionship.

“Callisto is a standalone payload on the Orion spacecraft, and it has no control over flight controls or other mission-critical systems,” Justin Nicholas, a lead Alexa experience designer at Amazon, said in August.

Other aspects of the Artemis I’s payload are more sensitive. A plush doll version of Shaun the Sheep from the Wallace and Gromit franchise will travel on Orion. So would a Snoopy doll in an astronaut outfit, with a pen nib that Charles M. Schulz used to draw the Peanuts series wrapped in a comic strip. Memorabilia from the Apollo 11 mission, which landed the first man on the lunar surface in the 1960s, also includes a small sample of moon dust and a part of an engine.

beyond the moon

Some of Artemis I’s most important research projects won’t be returning to Earth anytime soon. The mission plans to launch 10 small satellites called CubeSats into lunar orbit. These satellites will collect data that NASA, along with private companies, can eventually use to navigate to and around the Moon.

One satellite, LunIR, will study lunar surface protection with infrared imaging, generating information that could influence where astronauts eventually travel. A satellite, known as the Lunar Ice Cube, will try to locate the source of lunar water, which could eventually be used as a resource by NASA. Another satellite, NEA Scout, will head to a smaller, nearby asteroid, a side trip that could inform future crewed missions to other asteroids. Once the spacecraft is at a safe distance, the satellites will be launched by another component, called the Orion Stage Adapter.

The Orion spacecraft was loaded onto a NASA aircraft at Kennedy Space Center on November 21, 2019.
Courtesy of NASA

These satellites are a reminder that NASA is interested in much more than just watching the moon. The Artemis program is establishing an unprecedented level of activity on the lunar surface, including a human base camp, a series of nuclear reactors, and a mineral mining operation. NASA has made clear that it wants to develop a lunar economy, and the space agency has also established the Artemis Accords, a set of principles for lunar exploration that more than 20 countries have now joined.

Eventually, NASA plans to turn the moon into a pit stop on an even more ambitious journey: a human mission to Mars. Right now, it looks like it could happen in the late 2030s. But while many of these plans are still a long way off, it’s clear that the Artemis program is much more than an iteration of the Apollo program.

“Apollo was a political act to demonstrate US national power to the world in the context of the Cold War. It was clearly a race with the Soviet Union to be first on the moon. Once we were first on the moon, the reason to continue was gone,” said George Washington University’s Space Policy. Institute founder John Logsdon explains. “ARTEMIS is intended as the first program in a long-term program of human exploration.”

Of course, all of this depends on the Artemis I mission going smoothly. NASA has yet to evaluate how well the SLS and Orion worked together during liftoff. The space agency also needs to study how well Orion survives its descent through the atmosphere, which we won’t know for quite some time. If all goes well, the Orion capsule, with its motley payload of science experiments and galactic torches, will return to Earth and splash into the Pacific Ocean more than a month after takeoff.

Update, November 21, 12:50 pm ET: This story was originally published on August 27 and has been updated with the successful launch of NASA’s Artemis 1 mission on November 16 and Orion’s lunar flyby on November 21.