Artemis I is about to launch into deep space around the Moon, preparing the way for humanity’s return to the lunar surface and beyond. How will it make history?
After an absence of 50 years, Nasa is returning to the Moon. This time the programme is named after Artemis, the Greek goddess of the Moon and twin sister of Sun god Apollo. Not only is it a better fit in terms of name and destination, Artemis will ensure something Apollo neglected to do: it will put the first woman on the Moon.
Appropriately, Nasa’s first female launch director, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, will oversee the countdown and lift-off of the first mission. But Artemis I is far more than a feminist moment. During its 37-day journey in an extended retrograde orbit around the Moon – travelling in the opposite direction to the Moon orbiting the Earth – it will achieve a number of other important firsts.
“We’re going to take the first human vehicle further than any human vehicle has gone before,” says Jim Free, Nasa’s Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development. “And we’re going to go 40,000 miles (64,000km) past the Moon with the Orion capsule.”
When Orion – Nasa’s new crewed exploration spacecraft – achieves this, it will be about 280,000 miles (450,600km) from the Earth, breaking a record previously held by the crew of Apollo 13 back in 1970. As Artemis I is a test flight, the Orion spacecraft’s crew will consist of a human-sized mannequin wearing sensors to measure what stresses, strains and potential radiation will greet the (real) crew for Artemis II and beyond. But that’s not all…
After several delays caused by technical glitches and hydrogen fuel leaks, Artemis I will launch on a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket which – although smaller than the Saturn V – has the tallest rocket stage in the world at 64.6m (212ft).