GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 670, 9 April 2023

Space: NASA announces crew for the Artemis II mission
Harini Madhusudan

Space: NASA announces crew for the Artemis II mission
Harini Madhusudan

What happened?
On 3 April, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) announced the four astronauts chosen for the Artemis II mission. The mission is scheduled for 2024 and will mark the first crewed mission of the Artemis series of Moon missions towards establishing a long-term human presence on the lunar surface. The crew will be the first spacecraft with humans to travel towards the Moon or beyond the low-Earth orbit since Apollo 17. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said: "The Artemis II crew represents thousands of people working tirelessly to bring us to the stars. This is their crew, this is our crew, this is humanity's crew." 

The approximately 21-day lunar flyby mission will be aboard the Orion MPCV spacecraft using the Block 1 variant of the Space Launch System (SLS). Commander Reid Wiseman, Pilot Victor Glover, Mission Specialist 1 Christina Hammock Koch, and Mission Specialist 2 Jeremy Hansen were announced during an event at Ellington Field near NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA's Artemis mission manager stated, "The unique Artemis 2 mission profile will build upon the uncrewed Artemis 1 flight test by demonstrating a broad range of SLS and Orion's capabilities needed on deep space missions."

What is the background?
First, a brief background to the Artemis missions. The primary aim of the Artemis mission is to establish a long-term presence on the Moon with the goal of extending human reach towards interplanetary movement in deep space. The program is led by the US National Aeronautics and NASA and three partner agencies - ESA, JAXA and the Canadian Space Agency. The renewed interest in the Moon comes when the space industry is thriving with more space players, a reduction in mission costs, and the increased participation of the commercial space industry. During the Artemis II mission, the four crew members would perform extensive testing in Earth orbit, including the various checkouts of the spacecraft's life support systems and an in-space rendezvous and proximity operations demonstration. The mission will set the tone for the Artemis III crew landing mission.

Second, the return to Moon after five decades and its significance to reach MarsEarlier, the US had a series of Apollo missions to land humans on the Moon. The Apollo programme had 11 spaceflights, six of which landed 12 astronauts on the Moon. These missions conducted scientific experiments and sample collections to understand the lunar surface. The renewed interest and political support for Moon missions began in the 2010s. NASA renamed the programme Artemis and under the leadership of Donald Trump's Space Policy Directive 1, NASA focused on lunar missions. This directive allowed for an integrated program with private sector partners for a human return to the Moon, with an eventual goal of reaching Mars and beyond. Challenges of funding and perfecting the technologies remained one of the primary reasons for the delay. 

Third, the geopolitical importance of Lunar presence. Two blocks have emerged with varied interests in the Moon. One is the commercialized US-led Artemis Plan, and the second is the Sino-Russian plan for a lunar research system. The goal of establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon remains constant for both sides. The Moon offers the perfect base for interplanetary travel. The resources of the lunar surface, the moon mining and the lunar orbits provide a commercial value for lunar exploration. While international cooperation remains divided, the development of space technology and private industry participation would speed human advancement towards the Moon.

What does it mean?
Apollo 8, was the first mission to circle the Moon, and Apollo 13 was the only Apollo mission that flew past the Moon by a free-return trajectory. The mission is expected to test the technology, the space suits and other technical details to ensure the existing knowledge of space can be verified. If Artemis II succeeds in the free-run trajectory, plans of taking humans beyond the Moon would be strengthened. 

Second, Artemis II data would help understand Orion spacecraft's ability to protect astronauts from radiation and keep them safe. The mission will prove that the critical life support systems of the spacecraft are ready to sustain humans on longer duration missions. However, the mission delays may continue to affect the Artemis programme. Experts estimate that Artemis II is likely to be delayed until 2025.