Artemis I Carries the Future of NASA with It

The Space Launch System rocket fairing with ESA and NASA logos on the launchpad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA. The new ESA logo and NASA’s ‘worm’ logo will be along for the ride on the first full mission of the powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Of the six launches known to be scheduled to close out August, there’s only one – Artemis I — that truly matters in any real sense. The others will be duly recorded but little remembered in what could be the busiest launch year in human history.

Artemis I will be the most watched launch of the year so far. The Space Launch System (SLS) carries not only an uncrewed Orion spacecraft bound for a lengthy test around the moon but the hopes of NASA of reviving the space agency’s glory days when it landed 12 men on the moon in the Apollo program 50 years ago. If it works as planned, the road to the moon will be open again. If not, things will get very ugly, very quickly.

Artemis I is NASA’s first attempt to send a human spacecraft to the moon since the Apollo 17 crew launched from Florida aboard a Saturn V rocket in December 1972. If SLS succeeds on its maiden flight, Orion will fly around the moon on a mission to check out the spacecraft’s systems that will last between 20 and 40 days depending upon the launch date. The backup dates are Sept. 2 and Sept. 5.

NASA hopes it will mark the start of a new era of human exploration of the moon. A successful mission will pave the way for a crewed flight around the moon in 2024. That flight will be followed by Artemis III, which will aim to land two astronauts at the lunar south pole aboard a SpaceX built Human Landing System.

Artemis I will be the maiden launch of SLS, and the second flight of an Orion capsule. An Orion spacecraft flew a short mission in 2014 after being launched aboard a Delta IV Heavy. This will be the first flight of an Orion vehicle with the European Service Module designed to provide the capsule with power, oxygen and other essentials.

With the Artemis program years behind schedule and billions over budget, and derided as a wasteful and ponderous boondoggle by the NewSpace crowd, NASA has a lot to prove. So does SLS prime contractor Boeing, whose once sterling reputation for excellence has been badly tarnished by two fatal crashes of 737 MAX aircraft and the problem plagued uncrewed maiden flight test of its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has a lot at stake as well. As a U.S. Senator from Florida, Nelson helped broker a deal that required NASA to build the SLS rocket using much of the same hardware and workforce that had supported the space shuttle program. It proved to be a long and expensive effort.

A lot of the criticism will lessen if the mission is successful. (It will never completely go away given how much money and time has been spent on the Artemis program.) If the mission fails, there will be a chorus of people calling for SLS to be canceled in favor of SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy launcher. The maiden flight of that monstrous booster combination is expected in the coming months from the company’s Starbase spaceport in Texas.

Many things can go wrong on a maiden launch, ranging from minor under performance to catastrophic failure. The entire point of flight test is to determine what works – and, more importantly, what doesn’t work – before you launch astronauts or expensive satellites on a new booster. “This is why we test,” goes the old saying. It is both a cliché and a truism.

It’s also true that you want to fail early and often when testing new technology. The industry increasingly uses small satellites to test new technologies, a practice accelerated by lower launch costs and regular rideshare missions. The development of Blue Origin’s New Shepard and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicles have allowed engineers and scientists to test new technologies and experiments in microgravity conditions before sending them into orbit.

Therein lies the challenge for NASA and its contractors. SLS and Orion take so long to build and cost so much that there isn’t an opportunity to conduct very many flight tests. If something goes seriously wrong next week, it could set back the Artemis program by years.

So, on the one hand, NASA wants the flight to be a success. On the other, the agency is hoping the mission identifies any flaws in the booster and spacecraft, without those anomalies causing the mission to completely fail and resulting in extensive and costly delays in the Artemis program. And the space agency is hoping they don’t miss some major flaw that comes back to bite them later when astronauts are aboard.

It’s a conundrum. We’ll see how it plays out next week.

Artemis I Launch Details

Launch Vehicle: Space Launch System Block 1
Launch Site: Kennedy LC-39B
Date: Aug. 29, 2022
Launch Window: 8:33-10:33 a.m. EDT (12:33-14:33 UTC)
Launching Agency: NASA
Payloads: Orion spacecraft and 10 secondary payloads

Artemis I Secondary Payloads

ArgoMoonItalian Space AgencyHeliocentricSpacecraft will demonstrate capacity of CubeSats to conduct precise maneuvers in deep space by providing detailed images of the SLS’s Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage 
BioSentinelNASAHeliocentricSpacecraft will use budding yeast to detect, measure, and compare the impact of deep space radiation on DNA repair
CuSP NASAHeliocentricSpace weather measurements
EQUULEUSUniversity of TokyoEarth-moon L26U CubeSat will measure the distribution of plasma around Earth
LunaH-MapNASASelenocentricLunar polar orbiter will search for evidence of frozen water deposits
Lunar IceCubeNASASelenocentricLunar orbiter will search for frozen water deposits
LunIRLockheed Martin SpaceHeliocentricDemonstration technology to collect surface spectroscopy and thermography
Near-Earth Asteroid ScoutNASAHeliocentricTechnology demonstration of solar sail to rendezvous with asteroid
OMOTENASHIJapan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)SelenocentricSmallest vehicle to attempt lunar lander
Team MilesFluid and Reason, LLCHeliocentricTechnology demonstration of plasma thrusters