NASA to Attempt Crewed Moon Landing During Fourth Artemis Mission

NASA to Attempt Crewed Moon Landing During Fourth Artemis Mission

Artemis 4 may not happen for another five years, but this mission promises to be a good one. In addition to launching a modified SLS rocket and delivering two space station components to lunar orbit, NASA will also attempt to land a crew on the Moon for the second time this decade — a feat the space agency had previously said was not practicable.

Mark Kirasich, deputy associate administrator for Artemis Campaign Development at NASA, announced the change of heart on October 28 while presenting at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, as reported in SpaceNews. The original plan for Artemis 4 was to include a crewed landing, but the space agency ruled this out in January, saying the mission was too complicated to include a jaunt on the lunar surface. NASA has now reverted to the original itinerary, and we’re not complaining.

During his presentation, Kirasich offered an overview of the first five Artemis missions planned for later this decade. To the surprise of attendees, Kirasich said that Artemis 4 would mark the “second time people land on the Moon,” the first being Artemis 3, currently scheduled to happen no earlier than 2025 but more realistically no earlier than 2026, according to NASA’s Inspector General. These are the first two crewed landings of the Artemis era; NASA is seeking to return humans to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo missions, which concluded in 1972.

Marcia Smith from Space Policy Online reached out to NASA for confirmation. The space agency responded with a written statement, saying it has “notionally added a crewed landing to the Artemis IV mission to align with plans for continued development with commercial partners for long-term human landing system needs.” Upon consideration, “NASA determined adding a landing to Artemis IV was feasible and provided an additional opportunity for valuable scientific exploration of the lunar surface,” it added.

That Artemis 4 will be a complex mission is not in doubt. The mission will see the debut of Space Launch System Block 1B — a juiced-up version of the SLS rocket fitted with a more powerful upper stage known as the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS). For the Artemis 1 mission, currently scheduled for November 14, SLS will launch with the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), allowing the rocket to deliver 27 metric tons to the Moon. With EUS, however, SLS will be capable of launching 38 metric tons to the Moon.

For Artemis 4, NASA’s megarocket will need that added to power to launch the Orion crew capsule along with the I-HAB habitat module to lunar orbit. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) are in the midst of building this critically important Gateway module. Waiting in the near-rectilinear halo orbit will be the Power and Propulsion Element and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost, both of which are scheduled to launch aboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy in late 2024.

More on this story: What to Know About Lunar Gateway, NASA’s Future Moon-Orbiting Space Station

Artemis 4 will see the joining of these three components, in addition to the crewed landing on the surface. As NASA told Smith, the astronauts will transfer to the Human Landing System through “a docked interface at Gateway,” the HLS being a SpaceX Starship spacecraft. More specifically, it’ll be the Option B version of the Starship HLS, which will have some added bells and whistles as per NASA’s stipulation. The Option A version of Starship will transport astronauts to the surface during Artemis 3.

If that’s not enough, Artemis 4 will also see the debut of Mobile Launcher 2 (ML-2) — a mobile tower that NASA will use to launch SLS Block 1B and the two Block 2 configurations, one for crews and one for cargo.

The current plan is to launch Artemis 4 in 2027, but the stars will have to come into perfect alignment for that to happen. In addition to SpaceX having Starship ready, JAXA and ESA will need to deliver the I-Hab module. The aforementioned Falcon Heavy launch will also have to unfold as planned. Finally, ML-2 will also have to be ready. Private company Bechtel has been building the 117.96 m-tall (118-metre) tower since 2019, but the project has been marred by delays and cost overruns.

More: Mobile Launcher for NASA’s Megarocket Could Go $US1 ($1) Billion Over Budget, Auditor Warns.

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