I'm used to seeing old moon spacecraft surrounded by museum crowds. So it was rather strange in August to not only visit the Artemis 2 lunar spacecraft under construction in Florida, but to speak with its four-astronaut crew standing nearby.
NASA invited a small group of reporters Aug. 8 to see three Orion spacecraft for future Artemis moon missions, including Artemis 2, at the agency's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Artemis 2 aims to circle the moon in late 2024, or perhaps 2025 if recent reported comments from NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik come to be. (Bresnik is assistant to NASA's chief astronaut and is responsible for developing and testing Artemis hardware, his official biography states.)
As the first human moon mission since the Apollo 17 landing in 1972, the Artemis 2 crew told us how seriously they are taking the responsibility of prepping for their mission, and for laying the foundation for future moon crews.. "This is a developmental mission," NASA mission specialist Christina Koch told reporters at KSC Aug. 8. "We are going to not only be training, [but] we're going to be figuring things out with the team as we go. And we have to really embrace the uncertainty."
Senior managers at NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), which has an astronaut aboard Artemis 2, echoed these themes in interviews with Space.com in December. That's because Artemis 2 is the first human mission of NASA's greater Artemis program, which aims to land people on the moon on the following mission, Artemis 3. (The official timeline says Artemis 3 will touch down no later than 2026, but given delays in developing the SpaceX Starship lander and crew spacesuits, NASA's Government Accountability Office suggests 2027 is more realistic.)
The Artemis program was first announced in 2019 under the Trump administration. At the time, NASA was planning on a human lunar landing in 2028, but then-Vice President Mike Pence told the National Space Council that the deadline had to be 2024. Pence said the United States was in a new "space race" with China and Russia, and, as such, "the rules and values of space" would be determined "by those who have the courage to get there [to the moon] first and the commitment to stay."
Big space projects, however, tend to go late and over budget due to development issues, and as such, Artemis 2 commander Reid Wiseman emphasized safety will come before any deadline. "When NASA says it's ready to go fly, we will be prepared to go fly it," the agency astronaut told Space.com of Artemis 2 in an exclusive interview on Dec. 18, 2023.
The gate-opening uncrewed Artemis 1 mission had its own delays before launch on Nov. 16, 2022, for example, in part due to months of hiccups in getting the powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket fully fueled in tests before its debut launch. That said, Artemis 1's circuit around the moon and home again went just about flawlessly, enough to give NASA the confidence to announce the first Artemis human crew less than five months later, on April 3, 2023.
NASA has implemented many "lessons learned" from Artemis 1, including changes to the mobile launch tower design to reduce damage during liftoffs of the powerful SLS. Matt Ramsey, NASA mission manager for Artemis 2, also pointed to an upgrade in the data system for the new mission. "It was a chore," he said, to send out live video from Artemis 1 to viewers due to the small data capacity on the mission's Orion spacecraft.
The Artemis 2 crew includes Wiseman, NASA pilot Victor Glover (who will be the first person of color to leave low Earth orbit), Koch (the first woman) and CSA astronaut Jeremy Hansen (the first non-American). The international composition of the crew reflects the approach of the U.S.-led Artemis Accords, a set of international agreements that spreads out costs of moon exploration among participating nations while also providing policy guidance to these partners. To date, more than 30 nations have signed on the Accords.
Some of the international partners working with NASA on the Artemis program have made promises for future hardware, in exchange for seats and science. The CSA, for example, will furnish a next-generation Canadarm3 robotic arm for NASA's future Gateway space station that will circle the moon later this decade to support human landings. Gateway will also include modules from the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, earning those partners seats on future Artemis missions.
The U.S. isn't the only nation building a coalition to explore and help settle the moon. China is leading its own effort, called the International Lunar Research Station, with partners such as Russia, Pakistan and Belarus. (China is not a partner in the International Space Station program, but Russia is; the ISS collaboration is one of the only Russian space partnerships that hasn't fallen apart in the wake of the nation's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022.)