Face-to-face with Artemis

Size matters. Towering 322 feet, the Artemis’ Space Launch System (SLS) core stage will feed the engines about 1,500 gallons of propellant each second for eight minutes. About 75% of the SLS’s thrust comes from two solid rocket boosters (SRBs) on either side of the core stage, and when the SLS launches, it will use the SRBs and four RS-25 rocket engines, taken from previous Space Shuttle missions, to produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust, which will take the SLS into Earth orbit. The last time NASA conducted a test flight of a moon rocket was the mighty Saturn V in 1967. Two years later, a Saturn V rocket would launch the Apollo 11 mission, sending astronauts to the moon, before culminating in the final flight of Apollo 17, three years later in 1972. Compared to the Artemins, the three-stage Saturn V had 5 F-1 engines on its first stage, producing 7.5 million pounds of thrust to lift off. Once in orbit, five engines on the second stage provided the power to send the Apollo on its path to the moon. When you want to go the Moon, size matters.

50 years later, it’s no coincidence that the Artemis program is named for the twin sister of Apollo from Greek mythology. Apollo was one of the most beloved deities by the ancient Greeks. He was a son of Zeus and Leto and was also closely associated with the Sun, which is perhaps why his name was seen as suitable for a space mission.

When Abe Silverstein, perhaps the most preeminent figure in the history of the NASA Glenn Research Center, and who is best known for his efforts in establishing NASA as we know it today in the late 1950s, was inspired by Greek mythology one evening in 1960, came across a picture of Apollo, Silverstein said that the image of “Apollo riding his chariot across the Sun was appropriate to the grand scale of the proposed program.” He wasn’t wrong.

image credit: Chariot of Apollo – attributed to Sir James Thornhill 1700-1734

NASA also named it’s earlier missions that took place before Apollo according to a mythological theme. Project Mercury which ran between 1958 and 1963 was named after a Roman god, commonly associated with speed, and the name of Project Gemini, which ran between 1961 and 1966, was inspired by the Greek myth of the Dioscuri.

The Dioscuri were the half-twin brothers, Castor and Pollux. Both twins were sons of Leda, but the father of Pollux was Zeus. Castor’s father was a mortal king of Sparta. When Castor died, his demigod brother begged Zeus to also grant immortality to his brother, so Zeus transformed them into the constellation Gemini. Appropriate as Project Gemini carried two astronauts for the first time.

NASA’s latest mission to once again land humans on the moon has been named after the goddess Artemis. In mythology, Artemis was closely associated with the moon and her twin brother was the god Apollo. The naming of Artemis is therefore a nod to the mission’s objective of establishing a long-term human presence on the moon, not forgetting the earlier Apollo missions.

The ancient Greeks captured something less tangible but just as important in their mythology. Before NASA sent anyone to the moon, the Greeks and Romans named the planets after their gods. In this way, they recognized the majesty, wonder, and occasional terror the universe can conjure in the human imagination, that continues to this day.

The date is the 26th August 2022, and when I boarded my flight from London Gatwick to Orlando; I knew that this trip to the Cape, and Kennedy Space Center would be different. Yes, it was a homecoming of sorts, which it always is when I return to the Floridian space coast, I knew it would once again ignite varying heart-stirring emotions, and replenish an awe-inspiring wonder in all things space exploration related, but this time, it felt different.

I have written before about how a rocket is one of the few mechanical creations that engenders a deep emotional response in people. There’s something about a rocket that is alive. To me, that is what makes them exciting – the sounds, the smells and the feeling of being a part of the machine as it launches. It’s a completely engaging sensory experience, like no other. But the Artemis offered something more, something unexpected. You could see it, from 19 miles away. As I approached the NASA Causeway Bridge in Titusville, the distinctive, extraordinarily iconic, bright orange NASA core stage stood out, vertical, a monolith, as the Sun climbed over the flat horizon behind it.

image credit: pcdphotography

The date was the 1st September 2022. On August 17th, 2022, the fully stacked Artemis vehicle was rolled out for launch after a series of delays caused by difficulties in pre-flight testing. The first two launch attempts were cancelled due to a faulty engine temperature reading three days previously on August 29th, 2022, and unbeknownst to me during my visit, a hydrogen leak during fueling would subsequently delay the launch again two days later on September 3rd, 2022. But right now, there it stood. Ready, a trademark of NASA’s ambition and hope. Standing out visually, a unique silhouette, a gigantic material innovation of our future in space exploration.

image credit: NASA

The comparison to Apollo’s Saturn V is unavoidable. Since that monumental era in human evolution between 1967 and 1972, development of U.S., and International space exploration has been mixed. While we have continued to achieve scientific discoveries, particularly with the Hubble Space Telescope, and with the International Space Station (ISS), our increasing assessments of our nearest celestial neighbour and possible future habitat Mars, to New Horizons exploring the outer Solar System, something of which remains healthy deep in the Kuiper Belt, currently speeding away from the Earth and Sun at a rate of about 300 million miles per year, and the imaging of deep space with the introduction of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as recently as July 2022, NASA’s budget has continued to fall as a percentage of US federal expenditure. This has not been entirely catastrophic for space development as it may sound, as a larger proportion of financing has increasingly come from the private sector, totaling a record $14.5 billion in 2021, and in turn has caused the global space industry to grow to a valuation of over $400 billion in 2021, a 70% increase since 2010. However, private ventures have different priorities to public sector research and development. Artemis feels like the return of the hero lost in the wilderness, the main protagonist, rather than the young pretender that’s held the throne for so long.

image credit: pcdphotography

Artemis, namely NASA itself encapsulates the common narrative archetype; the hero who leaves the familiar world behind, learns a lesson in a new and unfamiliar world, embraces that newfound knowledge, and then returns home transformed.

It is unquestionable that NASA’s ambition to launch the Artemis rocket has brought space exploration back into the public attention. This mission promises a refocus back towards the Moon and will take the first tentative steps toward habitation of other worlds. Similarly, and continuing the narrative archetype, Artemis’ ‘Band of Brothers’, it’s team of ‘Merry Men’ with Hubble, the ISS, and the JWST in tow, as a team they have taken on the private sector head-on and enchanted both those who know nothing of astronomy and cosmology, and those who’ve spent their lives in it and now have new information about the origins of the universe.

The weight of this challenge is not to be underestimated, and Artemis certainly looks like its up for the challenge, both in its impressive stats, and visually as it stands ready on the launchpad in front of me. Artemis is actually slightly shorter than the Saturn V, which was 363ft (110.5 m) tall. But the SLS will be capable of delivering 8.8 million pounds (4 million kg) of thrust, 15% more than the Saturn V’s 7.5 million pounds (3.4 million kg), and even surpassing the space shuttle system’s 7.8 million pounds (3.5 million kg). SLS will be able to haul more than 30 tons (27,000 kg) to the moon. While this is slightly less than the Saturn V carried, less of Artemis’ carrying capacity will be wasted on the rocket’s stages and fuel, which will make it an overall better cargo mover.

image credit: NASA

Future planned versions of the SLS will be even more impressive. The Block 2 configuration, which will have an additional upper stage to deliver more thrust and a larger area for payloads, will stand 365ft (111 m) tall and be able to bring more than 50 tons (46,000 kg) to the lunar surface. Artemis will also be capable of delivering crews and material to Mars, and should therefore, enable exploration of almost anywhere in the solar system, in theory.

image credit: NASA

I am in awe when faced with the Artemis SLS. It boldly commands the horizon, standing proudly on the very foundations of its predecessors. It holds it’s own against other rockets on other launchpads. This is NASA territory. Sharing the very launchpad on which the mighty Saturn V once stood, the Saturn V was a rocket belonging to my parent’s generation. I had grown up with stories of it being read to me on long car journeys or at bedtime as I aided the stories told to me using the poster of Apollo 11’s launch on my wall as a visible representation. The Space Shuttle program was my generation, and I had witnessed the launch of the Shuttle Atlantis (STS-117), seen various Space Shuttles cross the entire breadth of the sky constructing and eventually crewing the International Space Station, and even heard the double sonic-boom generated by the re-entry of the Shuttle Endeavour (STS-134). I had seen it’s achievements firsthand in the same way my parents had looked at the Moon in 1969 knowing humans were walking on its surface at that exact moment in time. Artemis is new, perhaps belonging to my children’s generation, a generation with no NASA program to their name.

Artemis stands as an icon, and is a representative symbol worthy of veneration. So much so that your eye is drawn to two main features that shall continue throughout it’s successors. It adorns the iconic design characteristics that NASA is famous for. The Orange fuel tank, the fan-favourite NASA “worm”, and the more modern NASA “meatball”.

image credit: NASA

The worm logo was officially introduced in 1975, retired in 1992, and then made its comeback in 2020, when the decal was added to the Orion crew capsule, the Crew Module Adapter, and the SLS’ twin Solid Rocket Boosters. It is at this point what NASA is doing becomes broadly apparent. The agency is ushering in a new, modern era of human spaceflight, for a new, modern generation whilst remaining true to itself. When the Apollo program was terminated in 1972, NASA left the familiar world behind, and on it’s journey watched from afar, learnt lessons in a new and unfamiliar world, embraced newfound knowledge, and then returned home to launchpad 39-B transformed.

Standing within the familiar surroundings of Kennedy Space Center’s Saturn V hanger looking out across the Banana Creek Launch viewing area at Artemis, seemingly hungry to head skyward, the atmosphere was palpable, Artemis was being talked about. I did not take it for granted that millions of people from around the World would envy my view at that point, but unlike the Falcon Heavy that had previously stirred one’s emotions, I knew I would not be here to witness the launch of Artemis itself.

Launch operators had already decided on the date for the next launch attempt; the earliest possible opportunity was September 19th, 10 days after I had already returned home to the UK, until mission managers declared that September 27th, and then September 30th, would be the absolute earliest date, having successfully repaired the leak. However, unfavorable forecasts of the trajectory of then-Tropical Storm Ian led launch managers to call off the September 27th launch attempt and begin preparations for the stack’s rollback to the VAB. On the morning of September 26th, the decision was made to roll back later that evening. On November 12th, following another delay due to Hurricane Nicole, NASA launch managers decided to request launch opportunities for November 16th and 19th. As the storm approached, NASA decided to leave the rocket at the launch pad, citing a low probability that wind speeds would exceed the rocket’s design limits. On November 15th, the mission management team gave a “go” to begin fully preparing for launch, and the main tanking procedures began at 3:30 pm EST (20:30 UTC).

At 1:47:44 am EST (6:47:44 UTC) on November 16, 2022, Artemis 1 successfully launched from Launch Complex 39B.

image credit: NASA

The core stage used its four RS-25D engines, all of which have previously flown on Space Shuttle missions. The core and boosters together produced 39,000 kN (8,800,000 lbf), or about 4,000 metric tons of thrust at liftoff.

Once in orbit, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) fired its engine to perform a trans-lunar injection burn, which placed the Orion spacecraft and 10 CubeSats on a trajectory to the Moon. Orion then separated from the ICPS and continued its coast into lunar space. Following Orion separation, the ICPS Stage Adapter deployed ten CubeSats for conducting scientific research and performing technology demonstrations.

image credit: NASA

The Orion spacecraft spent approximately three weeks in space, including six days in a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon. It came within approximately 130 km (80 miles) of the lunar surface, its closest approach, and achieved a maximum distance from Earth of 432,210 km (268,563 miles).

On December 6, 2022, at 7:29 UTC, Orion exited the lunar sphere of influence. It then conducted a minor course correction burn and an inspection of the crew module’s thermal protection system and the ESM. Over the next few days the mission control team continued to conduct system checks and prepared for reentry and splashdown. On December 10, 2022, mission planners announced that the final landing site would be near Guadalupe Island off the Baja peninsula in Mexico.

image credit: NASA

The final trajectory correction burn of six total trajectory burns throughout the mission took place the next day five hours before reentry. The spacecraft separated from its service module at around 17:00 UTC on December 11, 2022, and then reentered Earth’s atmosphere at 17:20 UTC travelling near 40,000 km/h (25,000 mph), with Splashdown of the Orion capsule occurred at 17:40 UTC (9:40 am PST) west of Baja California near Guadalupe Island.

image credit: NASA

I waved at Artemis and wished it my best. This rocket, has fallen into the rare category of being one of only a few mechanical creations that engages a deep emotional response in people. There’s something about the Artemis SLS that is alive. The sound, the size, the familiarity, is a completely engaging experience that has been rarely felt since the Space Shuttle. NASA has planned an ambitious future for Artemis, one that could give this generation a rocket program they could claim as their own. But one that we can all enjoy. This new era of discovery requires all of humanity, including NASA collaborating with commercial and international partners to establish the first long-term presence on the Moon, and to help make these ventures possible and sustainable. We’re all in it together. Then, NASA will use what they learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars and potentially beyond, sending ever increasing bigger and heavier rockets with each mission.

A new generation are ready for this new era of space exploration. The Apollo Program gave humanity its first experience traveling to another celestial body. NASA’s planetary probes and associated observatories have revealed the Universe in all its mystery. One hundred and thirty-five NASA space shuttle missions, 20 years building the International Space Station, the largest structure ever constructed in orbit, and 18 years of continuous human presence in space have helped us as a species learn to live and work in space. Our next adventure, the Artemis program, is opening a new era of human exploration and discovery, to a new generation.

Artemis is here to inspire progress, reignite the spark, carry the flame. With one eye on the future, and the other on its past, Artemis stands on the shoulders of literal giants.

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