Originally, it was hoped that the first uncrewed flight of the SLS and Orion (Artemis I) would take place later this year. But according to recent statements by Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk, this inaugural launch will most likely take place “mid to late” in 2021. This is the latest in a series of delays for the high-profile project, which has been making impressive progress nevertheless.
In the coming years, NASA will be sending astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the last Apollo mission took place in 1972. Back in May, NASA announced that the plan – which is officially known as Project Artemis – was being expedited and would take place in the next five years. In accordance with the new timeline, Artemis will involve sending the first woman and next man to the Moon’s southern polar region by 2024.
To this end, NASA is working on a lunar rover that will search for and map out water deposits in the Moon’s southern polar region. It’s known as the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) and it is scheduled to be delivered to the lunar surface by 2022. This mission will gather data that will help inform future missions to the South Pole-Aitken Basin and the eventual construction of a base there.
When NASA sends astronauts back to the Moon and to Mars, the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) will be what takes them there. To build these next-generation spacecraft, NASA contracted aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin. Combined with the massive Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft will allow for long-duration missions beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for the first time in over 50 years.
On Monday, Sept. 23rd, NASA and Lockheed Martin announced that they had finalized a contract for the production and operations of six missions using the Orion spacecraft, with the possibility of up to twelve being manufactured in total. This fulfills the requirements for NASA’s Project Artemis and opens the possibility for further missions to destinations like Mars and other locations in deep-space.
SpaceX is getting closer to its making its next big leap with the Starship super-heavy launch system. With hover tests now complete, the public is eagerly awaiting the completion of the full-scale prototypes and for orbital testing to begin. Never one to disappoint, Elon Musk has been posting regular updates on Twitter showcasing the latest progress of the Starship Mk.1 and Mk.2.
As NASA prepares to return to the Moon by 2024 as part of its Artemis program, the agency is focusing its efforts on exploring the Moon’s polar regions. These are areas of the Moon which seem to have a lot of water mixed in with the regolith.
In accordance with Space Policy Directive-1 – which was issued on December 11th, 2017 – NASA is busy developing all the necessary hardware to return astronauts to the Moon. On March 26th, 2019, NASA was officially directed to expedite the process and land the first astronauts of the post-Apollo era around the lunar South Pole by 2024. This mission is named Project Artemis, who is the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.
On March 26th, 2019, during the fifth meeting of the reestablished National Space Council, Vice President Mike Pence challenged NASA to land astronauts on the Moon within the next five years. This represented an order to expedite Space Policy Directive-1 signed by President Trump on December 11th, 2017, which directed NASA to take all the necessary steps to send astronauts back to the Moon.
This announcement suggested that some shake-up might be taking place within the agency to make things happen. However, it appears that this now involves the demotion of two longtime NASA heads who have dedicated much of their lives to the advancement of human space exploration. Whether or not this decision came from the White House is unclear, but it is in keeping with the direction recently issued by VP Pence.
On December 11th, 2017, President Trump issued Space Policy Directive-1, a change in national space policy which tasked NASA with the creation of an innovative and sustainable program of exploration that would send astronauts back to the Moon. This was followed on March 26th, 2019, with President Trump directing NASA to land the first astronauts since the Apollo era on the lunar South Pole by 2024.
Named Project Artemis, after twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology, this project has expedited efforts to get NASA back to the Moon. However, with so much focus dedicated to getting back to the Moon, there are concerns that other projects being neglected – like the development of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a central part of creating a sustained human presence on the Moon and going on to Mars.
When it comes to the future of space exploration, a number of systems will come into play. In addition to the Space Launch System (SLS) that will send astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), there is also the Orion capsule. This is the vehicle that will take astronauts to the Moon again as part of Project Artemis (which is currently slated for 2024) and facilitate missions to Mars by the 2030s.
In preparation, the Orion capsule is being put through its paces to show that it’s up to the challenge. This past Tuesday, July 2nd, NASA successfully conducted the Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) test, bringing the Orion one step closer to completion. The launch took place during the early morning hours and involved the capsule being launched from NASA’s Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral aboard a modified Peacekeeper missile.