Dec 13, 2022 - Science

The Moon is back within reach

Illustration of a welcome mat on the lunar surface with the words "Welcome Back".

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

NASA's successful Artemis I mission paves the way for what could be the most exciting space moment in decades: landing people back on the Moon for the first time in more than 50 years.

Why it matters: The mission moves a crewed Moon landing from the realm of the theoretical to a likely event for the first time since the Apollo era.

  • "Most people alive today have never seen astronauts go farther than a few hundred miles from Earth, and Apollo is rapidly fading into true history," the Planetary Society's Casey Dreier tells Axios.
  • "This decade is going to be the most exciting decade in space since the 1960s."

Catch up quick: NASA's Orion spacecraft arrived back on Earth Sunday, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean after a 25.5-day long, uncrewed trip in space that culminated in orbiting the Moon and returning back to Earth under its parachutes.

  • The capsule performed very well during its mission, NASA said, which brought it as close as about 80 miles from the Moon and as far as about 270,000 miles from Earth.
  • Artemis I was designed to stress test Orion and work out all the kinks before putting people on board for the space system's next flight, planned for 2024.
  • The Space Launch System rocket also worked well during its inaugural flight with Orion in November, NASA said then, despite multiple delays and even weathering a hurricane on the launch pad.
  • “With Orion safely returned to Earth we can begin to see our next mission on the horizon, which will fly crew to the Moon for the first time as a part of the next era of exploration,” NASA's Jim Free, said in a statement after splashdown.

The big picture: NASA stresses that Artemis isn't just a rinse and repeat of Apollo.

  • The agency is focused on making this Moon program long-lived, with international partnerships and a specific focus on creating a "sustained" human presence on the lunar surface.
  • Through Artemis, NASA is also working to make sure the astronauts going to the Moon are a reflection of the U.S. as a whole and can provide a source of inspiration for everyone.
  • The agency has said the first crew to land on the lunar surface will include the first woman and person of color to launch to the Moon.

Between the lines: Geopolitical ties are also already being formed at the Moon, with more than 20 countries signing on to the Artemis Accords to govern behavior on the lunar surface.

  • Multiple space agencies have also agreed to build various parts of NASA's Gateway space station to be assembled in lunar orbit.
  • Space companies are also banking on the Artemis program. With NASA at the Moon, these lunar-minded companies could have a built-in user for their goods and services, ranging from mining equipment to robotic landers and rovers.

Yes, but: There are still key pieces of technology that could mean more delays for the first Artemis lunar landing — now expected in 2025.

  • SpaceX hasn't yet flown its lunar lander based on its Starship space system, and NASA is still awaiting spacesuits also being produced under contract with private companies.

What to watch: NASA's second Artemis mission flight will see a crew of astronauts fly around the Moon without landing before coming back to Earth.

  • The four-person crew for that mission is expected to be named in early 2023.
  • It's not yet clear when NASA will name the crewmembers who will fly to the lunar surface for Artemis III.
  • "We'll start putting faces and names to this now — beyond hardware," Dreier said. "Those will be famous names."
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