Caution first. Artemis 1 won't launch today, but whenever it does, its 42-day mission will test a wide range of deep space exploration capabilities for future crewed flights.
On August 29, engine bleed issues called a halt to a key Artemis 1, the deep space mission prepped for launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. The Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket would have entered a 42-day unmanned mission to test deep space exploration capacities: a critical test run before Artemis II can put a crew beyond the moon. The next available window begins on September 2, but timing depends on what the team finds when assessing the unusual temperature readings from one engine during fueling.
Whenever Artemis 1 launches, it will travel 280,000 miles from Earth over a four-to-six-week mission that places it far beyond any spacecraft built for human occupancy. Key systems under analysis are the Orion module itself, the SLS rocket, the ground systems at Kennedy, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and the Deep Space Network that will keep Orion in contact with mission control in Houston after it flies past Earth’s GPS satellite constellation. The SLS would have produced 8.8 million pounds of thrust during today’s intended lift-off, to hurtle a 6 million pound vehicle into orbit, before being scaled up for future payloads of at least 45 metric tons.
In lieu of people, the Artemis 1 mission carries CubeSats in its Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS). During a successful future launch, these small deep-space satellites will deploy after Orion’s separation from the ICPS (out of higher Earth orbit), to perform other experiments and technology demonstrations.
These CubeSats will address Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKGs) for deep-space exploration. BioSentinel will carry living organisms into deep space for the first time in over 40 years, to test the radiation environment over an 18-month window. NEA Scout will test robotic scout performance with a solar-sail-propelled reconnaissance mission to observe a small asteroid. Lunar Flashlight also uses a solar sail, but to measure surface water ice on the Moon and improve in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) for future landing parties, and refueling for missions further out.
For propulsion once Artemis 1 successfully completes its preliminary launch phases, and also during a close lunar flyby on its return (a mere 60 miles from the Moon’s surface), Orion will rely on a service module provided by the European Space Agency. The most critical phase will be reentry, when Orion experiences temperatures of around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (half as hot as the surface of the sun) while entering at nearly 25,000 miles per hour. Orion needs to remain powered until a recovery ship and U.S. Navy and NASA operations teams can collect the capsule.
Caution and patience are critical in these testing phases, to ensure scalability and viability of future projects. After Artemis 1 achieves success on all metrics, Orion will have its first crew, and NASA will turn its testing attention to the Gateway project, a lunar orbital platform to provide deep-space resupply, science, and communications support to future crewed missions on the lunar surface and beyond.
When NASA first took its missions to the Moon, its “space race” was with the Soviet Union. Now, it’s not simply China that serves as a pace-setter for deep space exploration, but also private industry, including the SpaceX program. The world may not have seen a successful launch today, but NASA’s Artemis 1 mission reminds us that space travel, and the benefit of its attendant technologies, can still be a public-international enterprise.