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Splashdown: Orion returns safely from the Moon! What's next for NASA's ambitious Artemis program?

With a successful Artemis I in the history books, NASA is turning its far-gazing attention to the future.

By Cassidy Ward
Artemis I Splashdown

It's been a long wait, 50 years depending on where you start counting, but the launch of Artemis I on Nov. 16 officially kicked off the next era of human spaceflight. Over the last three weeks, Artemis has gone through its paces, testing out the machinery which will ferry the next class of lunar astronauts to the Moon. Yesterday, that mission completed when the Orion crew module splashed into the Pacific.

At 11:11 a.m. ET, the crew module separated from the service module, approximately 3,200 miles above the surface of Earth. A few moments later, the first of two blackout periods occurred, times during which ground control temporarily lost contact with the remotely operated craft. Fortunately, both of the blackout periods were anticipated and planned for. As the craft interfaced with Earth’s atmosphere for the first time in more than 25 days, pre-programmed guidance took over, safely maneuvering the craft while it was out of sight.

That ship, empty of passengers but filled to bursting with more than half a century of accumulated spaceflight knowledge and expertise, initiated a skip maneuver. It came in too shallow to pierce the atmosphere and instead bounced off the air like a smooth stone over placid water. That soaked up some of the momentum, slowing the craft for re-entry. Even still, Orion was going about 25,000 miles per hour by the time it pulled into the planetary cul de sac.

RELATED: A new era in space flight: NASA launches Artemis 1, our first step in returning to the moon

As the spacecraft pushed on the air, the air pushed back — you can thank Newton for that — and the friction became heat. A lot of it. Over the course of just a few moments, the heat shield endured a rapid shift from the ambient temperature of space to approximately 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s about half the temperature of the surface of the Sun. It was one of the most important moments for Artemis 1, the uncrewed lunar mission which serves as the first test run for Artemis 3, a mission which will return humanity to the Moon for the first time in more than 50 years.

The upshot of all that heat was that the crew capsule slowed down considerably, from its entry speed of about 25,000 miles per hour, to a much more manageable 300, in just a few minutes. A series of parachutes took it from there, delivering the crew capsule gently into the Pacific Ocean. Orion splashed down at 11:40 a.m. ET, right on schedule.

WHEN'S THE NEXT "SMALL STEP?"

With a successful Artemis I in the history books, NASA is turning its attention to the future of the Artemis program, which will unfold over the next few years. The program is following a similar, but shortened, roadmap as Apollo. Boots on the ground took Apollo 11 missions, but they were building a space program from scratch. Artemis will need only three missions to touch the ground.

Artemis I was the first of those missions. It was uncrewed, a test of the launch and crew systems. Now that they have performed admirably, spending nearly a month in space and effectively executing both launch and re-entry, NASA is ready for the next phase. Artemis II will have a crew of four, comprised of three NASA astronauts and one from the Canadian Space Agency. They will fly around the Moon on a flyby, with similar mission objectives to Apollo 10.

RELATED: Behold Artemis 1's liftoff in stunning slow motion, and the melted launch pad it left behind

The flight plan is relatively simple. It will launch from Earth and enter an orbit about 18,000 miles above the planet. That will give the crew time to kick the tires before heading for the Moon. Their time at the Moon will be relatively brief. They’ll forego an orbit and instead use the Moon’s gravitational influence to slingshot back toward Earth. The whole trip should take less than half the time of Artemis I, only about 10 days between takeoff and splashdown. Artemis II is expected to launch in 2024, but the timetables are flexible and no concrete launch windows have been announced.

Once those first Artemis astronauts return safely to Earth, we’ll be ready for the big show. Artemis III will realize what all of this has been working toward: humanity’s return to the Moon and the establishment of a more permanent presence there. Artemis III is planned for no earlier than 2025 and, once again, dates are uncertain and mutable. Of course, there’s a certain amount of uncertainty around any space launch, and that’s especially true when human passengers are involved. We are limited by equipment, health, weather patterns, and the unceasing movements of celestial bodies. You’re never really sure if a rocket will launch, even when it’s sitting on the launch pad. That’s certainly true of Artemis, as well.

When Artemis III does blast off, it will be a little more complicated than its predecessors, because it will involve landing on the lunar surface. A version of SpaceX’s Starship, dubbed the lunar Starship, will be launched in advance and parked in a near-rectilinear halo orbit, NRHO for short. The halo orbit is elliptical, with one end of a week-long orbit near the lunar surface and the other end farther away. It’s a compromise which keeps the orbit stable without a lot of fuel expenditure, while still offering access to the lunar surface.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry astronauts most of the way to the Moon, where they’ll rendezvous with the Starship landing system. Two of the crew will enter the lander and descend to the lunar surface. The other two will remain aboard Orion and link up with the away party after about a week at the Moon’s south pole.

AFTER ARTEMIS III

The crews for Artemis II and III have yet to be selected, but when those astronauts touch down on the surface, they’ll be the first humans to visit that place for half a century. More importantly, they’ll bring to life the promise of humanity’s future space exploration. It might feel like the finish line, but it’s really only the beginning for Artemis.

Gateway

Artemis IV will see the first use of the Gateway space station. It will serve as a port of entry for the Moon and provide support for lunar astronauts. Artemis IV will carry the habitat module for the Gateway and include surface operations on the Moon. The station will be delivered to the same halo orbit used for the lunar Starship during Artemis III and will provide a permanent base of operations for the Moon and beyond. Beginning with Artemis V, the lander will remain at Gateway. Lunar astronauts will arrive first to the station, on Orion, and then move to the lander from Gateway, for a short trip to the Moon.

Much like the International Space Station, the Gateway will provide an orbital laboratory in near-Moon orbit and will be capable of incorporating new modules over time. It will provide a temporary home for traveling astronauts, and allow for extended mission of weeks or months, instead of just days. The Artemis program isn’t just humanity’s return to the Moon, it’s the continuation of an established legacy of spaceflight and exploration and a concerted effort to bring our spacefaring dreams into reality. That’s one mission in the books and the second can’t come quickly enough.

While we wait for the future of space travel, check out Space Race, the documentary that starts at the beginning, now streaming on Peacock!