Everything You Need To Know About NASA’s Orion and Artemis

The Orion space capsule was part of NASA's Artemis I mission.

The Orion capsule’s splashdown back on Earth marked the end of the Artemis I mission. | via NASA

by | Dec 14, 2022

NASA’s Orion spacecraft safely splashed down back on Earth from its journey to the Moon, marking the completion of the Artemis I flight tests. At its farthest, Orion traveled nearly 270,000 miles from Earth, reaching nearly 25,000 miles per hour during its re-entry. The spacecraft also touched a parching 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, completing a journey spanning over 1.4 million miles over a course of just 25 (and a half) days.

The first major space flight under NASA’s Artemis program marked the agency’s return to exploring our adorable satellite, following up on the Apollo program that began more than 6 decades ago. Here’s everything you need to know about the historic mission.

What is the Artemis Program?

A joint Moon exploration program involving the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

The last time humans set foot on the Moon was in 1972, during the Apollo 17 program. For those who are interested, you can still find the Command Module America on display at Space Centre Houston in Houston, Texas.

The Goddess of the Moon, the Hunt, and the Wilderness

The Artemis program plans to pick up exactly where the Apollo program left off – reestablishing a human presence on the Moon. A little snippet of Greek mythology: the Apollo mission was named after the Greek god of the Sun, while the Artemis mission is named after the goddess of the Moon, and Apollo’s twin sister.

The Artemis program was originally formulated in the 2000s, although not under its current title. After going through years of developments, a cancellation, and re-establishment, the program finally gained some traction in the late 2010s.

Elon Musk and Lawsuits Have a Weird Connection

In April 2021, NASA contracted SpaceX to develop, manufacture, and fly two lunar landing flights with the Starship HLS – a variation of the lunar lander that will transfer astronauts from a lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon and back.

The $2.9 billion package Elon Musk’s SpaceX received for NASA was a big deal, with the company beating a number of contenders, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

NASA originally indicated that they would pick “up to two companies,” and hence their decisions did not sit well with the SpaceX competitors. This led to Blue Origins and Dynetics, a defense contractor, protesting the contract by suing NASA, a lawsuit that they ended up losing, but ended up creating a lengthy delay to NASA’s plans.

Artemis I is Over, So What Now?

Orion stayed in space longer than any other spacecraft designed for astronauts has done without ever docking to a space station. Now that it’s back on earthly ground, NASA will retrieve and stray the data from the sensor-equipped mannequins Orion had on board, all in an attempt to deem whether they’re ready for other missions, this time with humans.

“It’s critical for us to get data from the Artemis I manikin to ensure all of the newly designed systems, coupled with an energy dampening system that the seats are mounted on, integrate together and provide the protection crew members will need in preparation for our first crewed mission on Artemis II,” said Jason Hutt, NASA lead for Orion Crew Systems Integration.

The mannequin flying on the Artemis I mission occupied the commander’s seat and was equipped with two radiation sensors, as well as a first-generation Orion Crew Survival System suit – meant to be worn during critical phases of the mission.

The data recorded will also involve acceleration and vibration throughout the mission. In addition, 5 accelerometers inside Orion will provide the data for comparing vibration and acceleration between the upper and lower seats.

“Some data collected from Artemis I will be used for Orion crew simulations and to verify crew safety by comparing flight vibration and acceleration against pre-flight predictions, then making model refinements as necessary,” said Dr. Mark Baldwin, Orion’s occupant protection specialist for lead contractor Lockheed Martin.

Artemis II and III Are Already in the Works

The Artemis program created during the Trump administration was ambitious but underwent several delays as a result of being overly ambitious. Starship – the spacecraft being developed by SpaceX to carry people on and off the Moon’s surface for NASA – is far from being launched into orbit.

NASA’s Artemis II will be the first crewed test flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion. While original predictions suggested that the launch will take place sometime in May 2024, NASA has since pushed the date back to a lunar landing in 2025 at the earliest.

Artemis II still won’t take its crew members to the lunar surface, as it is meant to perform an Earth orbit, and go for a free-return trajectory around the Moon, after which it will return back to Earth. Artemis III will be what marks a crewed lunar landing, something that can only be achieved after the successful launch and deployment of the Human Landing System (HLS).

How Much Does NASA Plan to Spend on Artemis

Putting humans on the Moon does not come cheap, but NASA is prepared to establish a human presence on the lunar surface, even if it means spending big bucks. According to an audit by the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG), the space agency is projected to spend $93 billion by 2025, with an estimated cost of $4.1 billion per launch.

As time progresses, NASA has also stated that it will be updating the costs for some of the Artemis programs. Delays and rising costs are major reasons behind the increased costs, in addition to the whole Blue Origin fiasco. Coupled with a lack of funding from Congress, it is still unclear how unhindered the missions will progress.

Why Are We So Obsessed with Our Moon?

If you’re wondering why we’re so obsessed with exploring a grey mass of rock that simply revolves around us, you’re not the only one. The only thing connected to the Moon that you might have noticed are tides – caused by the Moon’s gravitational pull on the Earth.

One of the most interesting things about the Moon is how it’s a sort of natural time capsule. The Moon lacks an atmosphere like the Earth, which makes things stay the same on it for years. It also lacks any tectonic activity, which is believed to have formed land masses on planets like Earth. This makes it so that the Moon’s internal structure is well preserved.

The result: the Moon may serve as a viable piece of evidence in understanding how planets for. In addition, it might serve as a small experiment of sorts, in preparation for the fact that humans might someday colonize Mars.

In a conversation with the World Economic Forum’s Nikolai Khlystov, Ellen Stefan, the former chief scientist of NASA stated:

You know, getting back to the Moon, when you say, well, we did this 50 years ago, what’s the big deal? Well, we actually have to go and figure out an awful lot over again. First of all, we had to build a really big rocket, and the Space Launch System is a huge rocket. I was actually really impressed. I’ve seen a lot of rocket launches in my life, but when I went down for the first and second launch attempts for the space launch system, an Artemis-1, I was really blown away by how big that rocket is.

We’ve been in low-Earth orbit for over 20 years, as you said. We’ve learned incredible things from the International Space Station. We’ve learned how to live in space. And some people might say, really? Is that is that really a big deal? It is a hugely big deal. If you think of it from how do we feed people over longer periods of time, really mundane things like can we get a toilet that works consistently and doesn’t break? You don’t want to go to Mars, you know, eight months to Mars, eight months back.

Exploration of the Moon is a crucial stepping stone in future exploration of planets beyond the Earth, and maybe even a fail-safe in case we manage to really mess s*** up on our home planet.