The Artemis Program: One Giant Leap for Humankind

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.

On July 16th, 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off into space carrying three astronauts bound for the Moon. Four days later, Neil Armstrong became the first man to ever set foot on our celestial neighbor, marking a new era of space discovery and bringing us closer to understanding our cosmic partner. Since then, we’ve studied the Moon with great detail, swooping low over its dusty plains and exploring its ever-so-famous dark side, but the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 was the last time any human touched the lunar surface.

Now, after five decades of remote exploration, we are once again aiming to send humans back to the Moon. This time, with much greater ambitions that are set to revolutionize space travel and catapult us into further planetary exploration of our Solar System. Apollo, the Greek god of the Sun, took us to the Moon and back, but it’s Artemis, his twin sister, who’s going to lead us toward building a base there and guide us in landing the first human on Mars.

Between Neil Armstrong’s famous walk in 1969 and Apollo 17’s last mission in 1972, 12 people have walked on the Moon, all of whom have been men. So it’s only right that Artemis, the goddess of the Moon, guides the first woman on her journey to our cosmic neighbor. As of March 2022, only 75 women have ever been to space, but Artemis’s tribute plans on adding to that number as a sign of our progress, both technologically and societally. 

So here we are, on the cusp of another historical mission. The journey of over 386,000 kilometers (240,000 miles) that is set to bring us one step closer to our ultimate goal as a species is about to begin. Are you ready? NASA’s Artemis program is an international effort to develop an ongoing presence on the Moon. It will include a series of missions that would lay the groundwork for future space exploration.

The path back to the Moon is a complicated one with many challenges. But the extraordinary opportunities that it offers make Artemis one of the most important undertakings in the history of humanity. Three Artemis missions are currently scheduled, but more will follow as the program unfolds. The first of these missions, Artemis I, will be an uncrewed flight scheduled to launch on November 14th, 2022.

It was initially scheduled to take flight on August 29th and then September 3rd, but rocket malfunctions delayed the process. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” 60 years later, his words are still proving to be true. But what was once considered insurmountable odds didn’t stop us then, and they won’t stop us now. 

When Kennedy spoke those words, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had reached a new height. Its effects infiltrated the fabric of everyday life in both countries fueled by the arms race, the threat of nuclear weapons and none other than the space race. This time, though, it’s different. Artemis is not a race between two global superpowers, but a quest in which borders are meant to dissolve in the name of the greater good.

While the program is led by NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency  will all make significant contributions. Commercial companies including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Maxar Technologies will also help develop key components that are essential for the program’s success. Artemis I is expected to take 25 days, 11 hours and 21 minutes from its launch in Florida on November 14th to its capsule, Orion, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on December 9th.

During that period, it will spend six days orbiting the Moon, collecting performance data and undertaking numerous developmental flight objectives. It will also test the onboard flight systems for future piloted voyages and take unprecedented images of the lunar surface with Earth in the background. The success of this mission is crucial as it will set the tone for Artemis II, the first crewed mission to the Moon in over 50 years. Artemis II is scheduled to launch in May 2024.

The four astronauts on board its Orion capsule will travel farther from Earth than any human ever has before. During its 10-day mission, the crew will complete a lunar flyby, evaluating the spacecraft’s systems and paving the way for the third mission. The most exciting of them all. Scheduled to launch in 2025, Artemis III will see the first woman and person of color to set foot on the Moon. A monumental feat in our quest for global equality. 

The mission will lift off similarly to Artemis II, however when the Orion capsule enters the Moon’s  orbit, it will dock on the Gateway space station. There, astronauts will transfer to the Moon lander. Gateway is essential to the Artemis campaign. Built with both international and commercial partnerships, it will be humanity’s first space station in lunar orbit and will support NASA’s deep space exploration plans. Just like the International Space Station, Gateway will serve as the astronauts’ living quarters as well as a command center.

It will allow for extended views of Earth, the Sun and the Moon which are currently not possible to see from Earth’s surface or orbit. Gateway is scheduled to make its way to lunar orbit in November 2024. Once the astronauts dock on Gateway, they’ll transfer to the Moon’s  surface via landing modules. NASA is working with commercial companies to develop both a human landing system as well as a series of vehicles for robotics and cargo.

Artemis III’s goal is to position a crew  somewhere near the Moon’s  south pole. NASA unveiled 13 potential  landing regions chosen for their diverse geological features and flat terrain that gets six and a half days of sunlight at a time, allowing the astronauts to remain on the surface for nearly a week. The chosen regions also contain chemical fingerprints of water, which, if harvested, could make it easier to establish a long-term human presence on the Moon. 

The first three missions of the Artemis program are crucial for its success. They will pave the way for future missions tasked with more ambitious goals. Unlike the Apollo program, our plan this time is not just to visit and explore the Moon. If all three missions are successful, NASA has plans for further crewed missions on an annual basis so that astronauts can begin establishing the Moon base that will serve as a staging point for the exploration of our Solar System. 

Imagine a world where a Moon base becomes so accessible that we can take commercial excursions to our cosmic neighbor. How incredible. As huge as all of this will be, there's a greater achievement on the horizon this is acting as a testbed for. Future missions to the red planet. Earlier this year, NASA released its Moon to Mars objectives which identified 50 key points that fall under the broad categories of exploration, transportation, habitation, infrastructure, operations and science.

Learning how to navigate the surface of the Moon under these categories can only benefit astronauts as they make their first foray on Mars and navigate across the planet’s difficult terrain. Another advantage of using the Moon as training grounds for future Mars exploration is its proximity to Earth. A crewed mission can get to and from the Moon in only three days, whereas a one-way trip to Mars would take at least seven months, with a round-trip potentially lasting around 500 days.

That’s a huge time investment just to try out some ideas that might not work, not to mention the risks to the crew. Since our last moonwalk, space-centric technologies have also developed immensely, especially with the commercial interest in space travel. Being able to test these advancements on the closer lunar surface would provide us with pivotal information on their practicality and importance. The history of human space exploration is littered with broken barriers that were once thought impossible.

But every step of the way, our thirst for knowledge and our obsession with the unknown have fueled our curiosity and pushed us to break those boundaries and reach for the stars, literally. You know what they say, after all. Reach for the stars, and if you fail, you’ll at least land on the Moon. Our destiny is to go and explore and see what’s behind the dark curtain of our Universe. The Apollo missions changed our understanding of space.

They brought us closer to our celestial partner, and gave us hope that maybe one day we would understand this Universe  we call home. Artemis is now ready to take the torch passed on from her brother, but instead of taking a step in the name of man, Artemis represents all of humanity. And every new step we take, every new discovery, every base built and every mystery solved will be one small step for humans, and one giant leap for all of humankind.