In the early morning hours of Nov. 16, from my seat in the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, as the Artemis I mission countdown clock passed the T-30 seconds point, the only thought that passed through my mind was, “Wow, this mission is about to happen.”
What followed over the next two hours was an incredible launch and trans-lunar injection burn to send NASA’s Orion spacecraft on a test mission to orbit the Moon, culminating in a safe return this Dec. 11 off the coast of San Diego. This test mission is of the utmost importance, providing the data to validate Orion’s systems, most critically the heat shield, and demonstrating NASA is ready for the next Artemis mission: taking humans farther from Earth than they’ve been in more than 50 years.
There have been many questions surrounding Artemis, which includes all of NASA’s human and robotic missions to the Moon in the 21st century. I want to provide a NASA flight director’s perspective on what the Artemis human spaceflight missions are about and why we are undertaking the most complex human space exploration missions in history.
Artemis I was a 25.5-day uncrewed flight test, meaning it didn’t have people aboard Orion. It was the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will soon include crew, providing a foundation for human deep space exploration and demonstrating NASA’s commitment and capability to extend human presence to the Moon. Some of the significant components of the early Artemis missions are the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. NASA and its partners are also building Gateway, a moon-orbiting outpost, new spacesuits, a human landing system, and more, all of which will support long-term human exploration on the Moon.
In the days after the SLS rocket flawlessly launched Orion into a trans-lunar trajectory, Orion performed a series of engine firings to enter into a distant retrograde orbit (DRO), flying at an altitude of more than 40,000 miles above the surface of the Moon. Just how far away is that? While in DRO, Orion was over 1,000 times farther from the surface of the Earth than the International Space Station, which orbits about 250 miles above Earth.
After about six days in DRO, Orion performed another pair of engine firings to get onto a trajectory that culminated in splashdown and retrieval by a team of NASA and Navy specialists. The most crucial objective of the Artemis I mission was to test out the Orion spacecraft’s heat shield and ensure it was up to the task of safely returning Orion and the future humans riding inside from lunar return velocities, which are upwards of 25,000 miles per hour. This is about 50% faster than when astronauts return from the space station.
A common theme critical of the Artemis missions I hear is, “Why don’t we just go to Mars? We already went to the Moon in Apollo; why should we go back?” I see a Mars mission akin to running a marathon – you wouldn’t get off the couch and immediately be ready to run a marathon. Returning to the Moon provides a stepping-stone to continue preparations and “train” for the multi-year Mars mission. This is NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach.
Going to the Moon is so much more than a training exercise. We are also going to the Moon because of the benefits it offers as a destination. While there is no questioning the accomplishments of the Apollo missions, we barely scratched the surface of the Moon’s scientific, exploratory, and economic potential. In Apollo, the landings were centered around the equatorial region of the Moon. In Artemis, we’re scouting locations near the South Pole of the Moon, which provides at least two key benefits that can’t be found at the sites used by Apollo.
There have been numerous scientific missions that found evidence of ice on the Moon. The Artemis III mission, which will be the first to land humans on the surface of the Moon since 1972, hopes to access those areas for scientific exploration for the first time. Ice at the lunar South Pole is important as it could potentially be turned into propellant to power rockets to further destinations like Mars or could be used for life support functions for our astronauts. The South Pole is unique in that it provides opportunities for near continuous sunlight, which will reduce our reliance on heavy batteries or fuel cells to provide power for long periods of darkness. Because of how the Moon orbits the Earth, the Apollo landing sites experience nearly two weeks of sunlight followed by nearly two weeks of darkness – acceptable for a short-duration mission but not suitable for a sustained human presence like Artemis is looking to establish.
There’s another key difference between Apollo and Artemis, which cannot be understated. During Apollo, there was a solid competitive reason for NASA and the United States to land on the Moon. As we look forward to Artemis II and subsequent missions, the spirit is much more collaborative. NASA is partnering with space agencies worldwide to ensure a successful Artemis campaign. Many of the partners we have experience working with on the International Space Station have signed on to be contributing partners to Artemis. NASA has signed agreements with Canadian, European, and Japanese space agencies to fly their astronauts alongside NASA astronauts on these exploration missions. Through the Artemis Accords, which establish a framework for peaceful and collaborative exploration of the Moon, we’ve also engaged countries with nascent space programs, including the United Arab Emirates and Australia. Through the collaborations on the International Space Station, we demonstrated what we could accomplish together when nations work as a team. To date, 21 countries have signed the Artemis Accords, and more are expected to sign soon.
It’s also important to discuss the public/private aspects of Artemis. A lingering misconception about human spaceflight is government versus commercial. That couldn’t be further from the truth. NASA is partnering with many private companies, including both traditional human spaceflight entities and new companies. There’s a role for everyone in Artemis, and no one entity today truly executes its missions without assistance from the others.
Finally, let’s talk about investments in space. The NASA budget is appropriated by Congress and amounts to only a small percentage of the total US government expenditures. For example, NASA’s $24 billion budget in the fiscal year 2022 made up only 0.4% of the $6.3 trillion dollars spent by the government that year. And remember that NASA’s budget includes funding for planetary science, Earth science, and aeronautics research, in addition to the core human spaceflight efforts like Artemis, and the International Space Station. Artemis is an engine of the American economy, supporting over 90,000 good-paying jobs across the country and providing over $14 billion in economic output. A recent report indicates NASA’s economic output is actually three times its actual budget – and that economic output benefits citizens in all 50 states.
The Artemis missions provide a beacon of hope and accomplishment for the whole of humanity – an opportunity for international collaboration to work together and achieve something truly otherworldly – a sustained human presence on the Moon. I look forward to what the future brings in human space exploration and hope you share in the excitement of the discoveries we are soon to make.
Rick Henfling has been a NASA Flight Director at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, since 2015, with responsibilities to plan, train, and fly human spaceflight missions. His missions have included operations in support of the International Space Station, Artemis, and the Boeing Starliner.