Humanity’s first lunar landing in over 50 years

On December 7, 1972, three astronauts were launched aboard the Saturn V rocket for what became the last time mankind set foot on the moon.

The crew consisted of Eugene (Gene) A. Cernan, as commander, Harrison H. Schmitt, as pilot of the lunar module Challenger, and Ronald E. Evans, as pilot of the command module America.

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Harrison H. Schmitt, Ronald E. Evans and Eugene (Gene) A. Cernan in a Lunar Roaming Vehicle (LRV) simulator on the launch day of the Apollo 17 mission – the last time mankind set foot on the Moon. Image: NASA

On the 11th, while Evans remained in orbit, Cernan and Schmitt made history as the last of the 12 men to walk on the lunar surface.

Exactly 50 years later, the Artemis 1 mission – the first in NASA’s new lunar exploration program – successfully completed on December 11, 2022.

The main objective of this unmanned flight was to circle our natural satellite to test essential technologies for all other missions of the Artemis program, such as the vehicular mega-complex formed by the rocket Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule, as well as communication and life support systems.

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Arrival of the Orion capsule at the port of San Diego, California on December 11, 2022. Credits: NASA

After that, the next flight is scheduled for 2024, with a crew on board the Artemis 2 mission, which was designed to repeat the same circuit, also without landing on lunar soil.

This, incidentally, should only happen between 2025 and 2026, with Artemis 3, which will finally take humanity to step on the Moon again. Last Friday (13), NASA released an update with more details about the mission.

Artemis 3 mission launch

Four astronauts will lift off from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop the SLS, the only rocket capable of sending the Orion capsule, crew and supplies to the moon in a single flight.

The crew will be selected from the most diverse corps of astronauts in history, each with unique skills and intensely trained.

First, the crew will enter Earth orbit, where they will perform system checks and adjustments on Orion’s solar array. Then, a powerful boost from the SLS’s interim cryogenic propulsion stage will help the capsule perform a translunar injection maneuver, setting its course for the Moon.

The way

For several days, the crew will go to the Moon and perform corrective engine burns to intercept the gravitational field of our natural satellite. At the right time and place, Orion will perform a series of two engine burns to place itself in a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO).

From hundreds of potential orbits, NASA selected the NRHO to achieve the long-term goals of the Artemis program. The NRHO will provide near-constant communications with Earth and access to locations on the Moon.

Because it is gravitationally balanced between the Earth and the Moon, this orbit will increase energy efficiency. On future missions, NASA and its partners will place the Lunar Gateway space station at this NRHO to serve as a hub for the Artemis missions.

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Map of the Artemis 3 mission. Credits: NASA

Landing system provided by SpaceX

NASA selected SpaceX to provide the human landing system that will transport the Artemis 3 astronauts from inside Orion in lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon and back.

According to the US space agency, SpaceX plans to use a unique concept of operations to increase the overall efficiency of its lander.

After a series of tests, Elon Musk’s company will carry out at least one unmanned demonstration mission that will land the Starship on the lunar surface. When Starship meets all of NASA’s requirements and the crew’s high safety standards, it will be ready for its first Artemis mission.

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Artist’s rendering of SpaceX’s spacecraft landing on the moon. Image: SpaceX

First landing on the lunar surface in the 21st century

In preparation for Artemis 3, prior to the crew launch, SpaceX will deploy a storage depot in Earth orbit. A series of reusable tanks will transport the propellant to the storage depot to fuel the human landing system.

The Starship Unmanned Human Landing System will launch into Earth orbit and meet the storage depot to refuel its tanks before performing a translunar injection engine burn and traveling approximately six days to the NRHO, where it will be waiting for the Artemis 3 crew.

When the two spacecraft arrive at the NRHO, Orion will dock with SpaceX’s Human Landing System in preparation for the first lunar surface expedition of the 21st century.

Two astronauts will board the lander and two will remain in Orion, which will undock and depart Starship to remain in NRHO for approximately one orbit around the Moon, lasting about 6.5 days.

This will correspond to the duration of the surface expedition; therefore, when Orion completes its orbit, the two-person surface crew will complete their work in time to leave to search for the spacecraft.

landing places

For the Artemis era of human lunar exploration, NASA is considering locations around the South Pole.

The extreme and contrasting conditions make this region a difficult place for Earthlings to land, live and work, but the region’s unique characteristics promise unprecedented scientific discoveries in deep space.

Using state-of-the-art technology, including autonomous systems, the crew inside Starship will land at a carefully selected location 100 meters away.

After landing, the surface crew’s first task will be to ensure that all systems are ready for their stay on the Moon. Then they will rest, eat and recharge for the first full day of the expedition.

Wearing suits provided by Axiom Space, astronauts will conduct experiments inside the lander and also walk on the lunar surface to take photos, videos, research geology, collect samples and other tasks.

Ground mission control teams will be in contact with the crew as they relay what they see, hear and feel. With mission coverage and the ability to send high-quality images and video to the ground using advanced communications technology, they will share a unique new human experience with the world.

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Go home

Once the expedition is complete, the two astronauts will lift off the surface of the Moon and return to the NRHO in the Starship to reunite with their teammates in the Orion capsule.

After docking, the crew will spend up to five days in orbit, transferring samples between vehicles and preparing for the journey back to Earth.

Upon arriving at the NRHO’s ideal starting point, they will disengage and fire Orion’s engines, launching the spacecraft across the Moon and allowing it to depart towards Earth.

The crew will travel at approximately 40,000 km/h during their re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Equipped with 11 parachutes, the vessel will plunge into the Pacific Ocean, where it will be recovered, along with the crew, with the support of the United States Coast Guard and the United States Navy.

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