When the Artemis I capsule splashes into the Pacific Ocean on December 11, NASA will have completed its first step toward Mars.
When NASA’s ambitious Artemis I project rocket—the agency’s most powerful launch vehicle ever—blasted into space from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on November 16, scarcely more than a century ago automobiles and airplanes were still in their cradles.
In a historical blink of an eye, in other words, human existence has been utterly transformed by technology.
The American dreamers who conquered air, land
Dayton, Ohio, bicycle makers Wilbur and Orville Wright finally achieved sustained flight with their revolutionary gasoline-engine-powered glider in 1903, and American Henry Ford’s self-named automobile company produced its first gas-powered “horseless carriage” that same year and then implemented its revolutionary assembly-line mass production system in 1913.
Afterward, the trajectory to modernity soared exponentially and internationally.
The Artemis I launch is just the latest of history’s most stunning, transfiguring technological feats—all achieved in just over one hundred years by human brainpower, creativity, and dogged determination.
Although the proximate goal of the Artemis I project, which is uncrewed, is to send an unmanned spaceship to orbit the moon for 26 days and then return it to Earth, the mission’s long-term objective is a future crewed journey to Mars. The debut mission’s Orion capsule entered lunar orbit on Nov. 21, 60 miles above the moon’s surface, and is now streaking homeward for a scheduled Pacific Ocean splashdown on December 11.
In a Nov. 16 report, cable news outlet CNBC noted:
The mission represents a crucial inflection point in NASA’s moon plans, with the program delayed for years and running billions of dollars over budget. The Artemis program represents a series of missions with escalating goals. The third— tentatively scheduled for 2025— is expected to return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo era.
Although Artemis I does not carry astronauts and won’t land on the moon, NASA has stressed the mission is critical to demonstrating that the project’s gargantuan rocket and high-tech, deep-space-capable capsule perform as designed.
Hugely expensive program has bipartisan congressional support
The project has retained strong bipartisan congressional support despite frustrating execution delays and soaring cost overruns.
Although NASA estimated in 2012 that the Artemis I rocket alone, with its 2 million pounds of thrust, would cost an eye-popping $6 billion to develop and $500 million for each launch starting in 2017, the launch this year was five years late, while development costs have exceeded $20 billion and its per launch price tag has ballooned to $4.1 billion.
NASA’s Inspector General, the agency’s internal auditor and watchdog, warned earlier this year that Artemis I is not a “sustainable” moon program, as NASA promised. The auditor revealed that the project has already spent $40 billion—and is projected to spend a total $93 billion through 2025—when the first lunar landing was initially anticipated.
However, the Inspector General now believes the moon landing is unlikely before 2026—“at the earliest.”
In comparison to the staggeringly expensive Artemis project, birthed by legions of highly educated astronomers, engineers, mathematicians, designers, and other elite space-conquering professionals, “working-class dreamers” Wilbur and Orville Wright spent only about $1,000 (roughly $28,000 in current dollars), earned from profits of their small bike shop business, to develop and construct their first prototype “Wright Flyer.”
The odd-looking craft flew 852 feet under its own power in its debut takeoff on seaside sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and soon after sustained powered, controlled flight more than 40 miles.
Henry Ford was similarly frugal in developing his first mass-produced automobile, the Motel T, which debuted in 1909 and initially cost $850 to buy. But by 1924 the price of the wildly popular motor vehicle had plunged more than threefold to $260.
‘Hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces’
In his 1922 autobiography, My Life and Work, Ford waxed poetic about his Model T:
I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one-and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.
Although only a specially trained, elite few are now able to enjoy the wonders of space travel, designers of space vehicles have likewise, as Ford did, created “the simplest designs modern engineering can devise” (albeit, accommodating unimaginably complex requirements),” allowing joyous access to “God’s great open spaces” in the cosmos beyond Earth.
In a nutshell, the Artemis I project aims to develop a permanent moon base with which to support the envisioned future journey to the “Red Planet”—Mars.
NASA characterizes Artemis I as,
[T]he first in a series of increasingly complex missions to build a long-term human presence at the Moon for decades to come. … We will launch the world’s only spacecraft designed to carry humans to deep space, atop the most powerful rocket.
‘We’re going back to the moon for the benefit of all humanity’
In its news packet released before the launch, NASA summarized what it hopes to accomplish with Artemis:
“We’re going back to the Moon for the benefit of all humanity—scientific discovery, economic benefits, and inspiration for a new generation of explorers: the Artemis Generation. While maintaining American leadership in exploration, we will build a global alliance and explore deep space as one. With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. We will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the Moon. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.”
Artemis I’s lunar landing is only the most evident of the project’s many esoteric activities. As NASA explained in its news packet:
As the Orion spacecraft orbits Earth, it will deploy its solar arrays, and the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) will give Orion the big push—called a trans-lunar injection—needed to leave Earth’s orbit and travel toward the Moon. From there, Orion will separate from the ICPS about two hours after launch. After Orion separates from the ICPS, 10 small satellites known as CubeSats will be deployed to perform experiments and technology demonstrations. The CubeSats will conduct a range of investigations and technology demonstrations from studying the Moon or an asteroid to the deep space radiation environment. Each CubeSat provides its own propulsion and navigation to get to various deep space destinations.
The Orion itself during its journey traveled 40,000 miles beyond the moon, which is 280,000 miles from Earth. At the end of its lunar orbit, the spacecraft will use the moon’s gravity to slingshot itself toward Earth, where reentry into the atmosphere at more than 25,000 miles per hour will test the Orion’s heat shield performance.
During reentry, the shield will heat to nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius)—”about half as hot as the surface of the Sun,” according to NASA.
Next up for NASA: Artemis II and III
The next Artemis mission—Artemis II—a human crew will guide the still-attached rocket and Orion capsule beyond Earth orbit to “confirm that all the spacecraft’s systems operate as designed with humans aboard in the deep space environment.” The crew will detach rocket and capsule and use the rocket as a target to test Orion’s technical capabilities, such as docking and undocking.
The crew of Artemis III will guide the Orion spacecraft to the moon, where it will make history by landing the first 21st-century astronauts on its surface—the 22nd lunar landing ever.
Following Artemis III, NASA plans crewed missions about once a year, with the first missions “focused on establishing surface capabilities and building Gateway, an outpost in orbit around the Moon that will provide access to more of the lunar surface than ever before.”
An extensive array of Earth-based equipment will allow intercommunication between Artemis crew members and ground staff, and real-time tracking of each mission.
When the Artemis I capsule splashes down in the Pacific on Dec. 11, humankind will be one step closer to NASA’s long-coveted goal of landing earthlings on the red-hued, wind-blasted, beyond the ice-cold surface of Mars.
That a manned Mars landing now seems inevitable is tantamount to a miracle.
Indeed, in 1903 that’s what people thought of “horseless carriages” and flying machines, too.
Keep in mind that human ingenuity has already landed robotic “rover” vehicles on the Martian surface, even a small low-gravity helicopter, in multiple successful missions to the Red Planet.
So now it’s just a matter of getting people there.