Fifty years ago this month, mission managers at the US space agency Nasa gave the final go-ahead for what would turn out to be humanity’s most recent odyssey to the moon. Few realized at the time it would be more than half a century before Nasa would be ready to return, not least Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan, whose belief as he stepped back into the lunar module in December 1972 was that it would be “not too long into the future” that astronauts were there again.
At 1.04am EST (6.04am GMT) Wednesday, late technical issues and Florida’s weather gods notwithstanding, Artemis 1, the most powerful rocket ship in history, will attempt to close that decades-long gap.
There will be no humans aboard the Orion capsule on its 25-day, 1.3m-mile journey to the moon and back, but the test mission’s success will pave the way for a crewed landing effort inside four years. Artemis 3, currently slated for 2025 but likely to slip back a year, will add a woman’s name to the only 12 in history – all men from the Apollo flights between 1969 and 1972 – who classify as moonwalkers.
“We’re going back to the moon after 50 years, to stay, to learn to work, to create, to develop new technologies and new systems and new spacecraft in order to go to Mars,” Nasa administrator Bill Nelson said, explaining the purpose of the Artemis program in an interview with Newsweek earlier this year.
“This is a tremendous turn of history.”
The space agency is looking for conditions to finally come together for Wednesday’s launch after a series of delays through the summer and early fall. Attempts in August and September were scrapped after engineers discovered an engine cooling problem, then were unable to fix an unrelated fuel leak.
Hopes of an early October launch were thwarted when the threat of Hurricane Ian forced the space agency to roll the giant $4.1bn Space Launch System (SLS) rocket back to the safety of the hangar.
And some second-guessed Nasa’s decision to leave Artemis exposed on its Cape Canaveral, Florida, launchpad in recent days amid the fury of Hurricane Nicole’s 100mph wind gusts.
That storm led to a further two-day delay until Wednesday – and a thorough post-hurricane inspection by engineers at the Kennedy space center before it was declared fit to fly.
“If we didn’t design it to be out there in harsh weather we picked the wrong launch spot,” Nasa’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, Jim Free, told a Friday press briefing.
Nelson, a former space shuttle astronaut, acknowledged delays as “part of the space business”.
“We’ll go when it’s ready. We don’t go until then, and especially on a test flight. [We’ll] make sure it’s right before we put four humans up on the top,” he said after the September scrub.
Those humans will be aboard Artemis 2, a 10-day interim mission planned for May 2024 that will fly astronauts beyond the moon without landing, testing new life-preservation systems and equipment designed for long-duration spaceflights.
The “crew” for Artemis 1 includes sensor-rigged mannequins called Helga, Zohar and Moonikin Campos, who will gauge radiation levels, and a soft toy Snoopy and Shaun the Sheep as gravity detectors.
“We’re never going to get to Artemis 2 if Artemis 1 isn’t successful,” Free said.
As the technology has evolved, so have Nasa’s reasons for wanting to be back on the lunar surface. The agency is looking beyond the brief exploration visits of the Apollo era, and it wants to establish a long-term human presence, including construction of a lunar base camp, as groundwork for crewed missions to Mars by the mid-2030s.
Scientific discovery, economic benefits, building a global alliance, and inspiring a new generation of explorers are among Nasa’s stated goals for what it calls the “Artemis generation”.
Nasa’s Moon to Mars vision, of which the Artemis program is just one part, has a wider brief of pulling in international and commercial partners to deep space exploration, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and heavy lift Starship rocket that could be ready for its first orbital test flight as soon as next month.
Unstated is the desire to keep the US ahead of Russia, and particularly China, in the next era of human spaceflight.
Analysts, including Nasa’s own inspector general, see the Artemis program’s $93bn price tag, including $4.1bn for each of the first launches, as unsustainable. They note it is already billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.
But some experts see a political willpower in Washington DC to keep the moon to Mars program fully funded, even if Republicans seize the House and the nation’s purse strings from Democrats when the final midterm election results are in.
“The coalition in support is bipartisan, much more tied to constituent interest. There is political support,” said the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, John Logsdon.
“[But] so many things have to happen before the first Mars landing mission is feasible that all you can say is, if everything goes as planned, then yes, we will send humans to Mars.”