It has been 50 years since humanity left space-boot prints on the Moon, but in a few short years, astronauts will once again walk the lunar surface.
Inverse broke down exactly what NASA needs to do — and what they have already accomplished — in the quest to get mankind back on the Moon in the next decade.
In 2024, NASA plans to send the first woman and more men to the Moon as part of the agency's Artemis mission. But getting to the Moon is no easy feat. To make the journey a success, these manned flights require the agency to clear a number of hurdles technical and safety first.
On Tuesday this week, NASA took a giant leap forward in achieving its ultimate goal.
The agency completed one of the final safety tests, with flying colors. It tested out the attitude control motor on the Orion spacecraft, which will carry the Artemis astronauts to the Moon.
“The 30-second hot fire was the third and final test to qualify the motor for human missions,” NASA said in a statement.
So, what comes next? Inverse has put together a timeline of the events we can expect leading up to humanity’s return to the lunar surface.
April 2021: Artemis I launches
Scheduled to take off in April, 2021, Artemis I kicks off the entire mission. But there will be no humans onboard this spacecraft.
To convey astronauts safely to the Moon, NASA first needs to send a test spacecraft there with no humans on board.
"This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known."
That is the purpose of Artemis I: an uncrewed flight test of the Orion spacecraft.
And instead of landing on the Moon, Artemis I will overshoot it by thousands of miles. During its trip, it will travel 280,000 miles from Earth and spend more time in space without docking at a space station than any other spacecraft of its kind has ever done before, NASA hopes — some three weeks.
After it makes its way beyond the Moon, Artemis I will, if all goes to plan, turn back and return to Earth.
“This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known,” Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement.
“It will blaze a trail that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission.”
Late 2022: Artemis II takes off
If Artemis I succeeds, then it is our turn. Artemis II is designed to carry humans onboard the Orion spacecraft, although they will not land on the Moon, either. Instead, the spacecraft is designed to orbit the Moon and return back to Earth.
Artemis II is currently scheduled to launch no later than 2023, NASA says.
It will be the first crewed mission to leave Earth’s low orbit in the 21st century, following in the flight path of Apollo 17, which made the trip in 1972.
“During this mission, we have a number of tests designed to demonstrate critical functions, including mission planning, system performance, crew interfaces, and navigation and guidance in deep space.” Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator of Exploration Systems Development at NASA, said in a statement.
The spacecraft will circle the Earth twice and periodically fire its engine in order to build up enough speed to propel it towards the Moon.
After it orbits the Moon, the spacecraft will use the Moon’s gravitational pull to slingshot itself back to Earth, where it will (fingers crossed) land safely.
2024: Artemis III takes center stage
Artemis I and II are the support acts to a killer headliner: Artemis III.
If NASA meets these two tests of its engineering ingenuity, then in 2024, we will finally come to the main event: A second crewed Artemis flight aboard the Orion spacecraft. But this time, the mission will land on the Moon.
Once it reaches the Moon, the spacecraft will connect with the lunar gateway, a small spaceship that will be orbiting the Moon. The gateway is already under construction, although NASA predicts it won't be fully completed until 2026. A lot rests on whether the power and propulsion element of the gateway can be completed pre-2024, the agency says.
The element is a solar electric propulsion spacecraft. It will serve as a mobile command and service module, enabling communications between human and robotic expeditions to the lunar surface and ground control here on Earth.
The gateway will also allow astronauts to have access to different areas on the lunar terrain, including the Moon's South Pole.
If all goes according to plan, two or more astronauts carried by Artemis III will touch down on the Moon’s South Pole. The South Pole is an unexplored region of the Moon. Previous missions have landed on the near side of the Moon that faces the Earth, but the South Pole lies on the far side that is obscured from our Earth-bound view.
And unlike the Apollo missions, this time when humans land on the Moon, they plan to stay a while. Ultimately the Artemis program wants to set up a sustainable presence of astronauts on the Moon, sending a crew up to the lunar surface every year.
And to do that, the agency needs a rolling supply of astronauts. Do you have what it takes to join the mission? Find out what two qualities you really need to make it onto NASA's list of candidate astronauts here.