Artemis: NASA’s Program to Return Humans to the Moon

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September 8, 2020
Artemis: NASA’s Program to Return Humans to the Moon
Between 1969 and 1972, the Apollo program of the
For example, for Block 1B, NASA is developing the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Exploration Upper Stage to replace the Block 1 upper stage,
landed 12 American men on the Moon and returned them
which is known as the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage.
safely to Earth (see Figure 1). Since then, no human has
been farther from Earth than low Earth orbit, a few hundred
In December 2014, a partially complete Orion was
miles up; the distance to the Moon is about 240,000 miles.
launched on a Delta IV Heavy rocket and orbited Earth
Artemis, named for Apollo’s twin sister in ancient Greek
twice before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. This
mythology, is NASA’s program for a return to the Moon by
uncrewed mission tested the crew module’s heat shield and
American astronauts—one of them a woman—in 2024.
parachutes, as well as other systems.
Figure 1. The Last Human Lunar Mission: Apollo 17
The first flight of Orion on an SLS is expected in
November 2021. During this mission, known as Artemis I,
a complete but uncrewed Orion is to orbit the Moon before
returning to Earth. The mission is intended to provide the
data NASA needs to certify safety for crewed flights.
Artemis II, the first crewed test of Orion and the SLS, is
expected in August 2023. During this 10-day mission,
Orion and its crew of four are to fly around the Moon at an
altitude of about 4,000 miles before returning to Earth.
The Artemis III mission, planned for 2024, is to include the
first human Moon landing since 1972. Achieving that goal
would require the development of other systems, such as a

lunar lander. Detailed plans for Artemis III are not yet
Source: NASA, ery/images/apollo/
Note: This image shows Apol o 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt
Figure 2. Major Elements of SLS and Orion
standing on the surface of the Moon on December 13, 1972. Behind
him are the Lunar Module lander and the Lunar Roving Vehicle rover.
Orion and the Space Launch System
Artemis has evolved from plans initiated in the NASA
Authorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-267). The act
established a statutory goal of “expand[ing] permanent
human presence beyond low-Earth orbit” and mandated the
development of a crew capsule and a heavy-lift rocket to
accomplish that goal. The capsule, now known as Orion,
and the rocket, known as the Space Launch System (SLS),
have been in development since then (see Figure 2).
Each Orion capsule consists of a crew module with room
for four to six astronauts as well as storage space and a
docking port; a service module (contributed by the
European Space Agency) to provide power and propulsion;
and a launch abort system. The crew module is the only
portion intended to return to Earth at the end of a mission; it
is designed to be reusable.
The SLS is an expendable rocket designed to carry Orion
into space and set it on its initial trajectory. The SLS could
also potentially be used for other missions involving heavy

payloads or requiring very high thrust. It is designed to be
Source: CRS il ustration based on NASA diagrams at
upgraded in stages (known as Block 1, Block 1B, and Block and
2) by substituting improved versions of its major elements.

Artemis: NASA’s Program to Return Humans to the Moon
Human Landing System
might bring; how providing the funding needed to achieve a
The Orion capsule is not designed to land on the Moon.
2024 landing might affect the availability of funding for
Instead, for Artemis III and subsequent lunar surface
other NASA programs; how schedule pressure might
missions, astronauts will need to transfer to a separate
influence safety decisions; and how design choices made to
spacecraft, known as the Human Landing System (HLS),
meet the 2024 deadline might affect system reusability for
for lunar descent and ascent. In April 2020, NASA awarded
subsequent NASA human exploration missions.
fixed-price contracts for the first phase of HLS design and
development to three companies: Blue Origin, Dynetics,
Cost and Schedule
and SpaceX. Not all companies will necessarily be selected
Even among congressional supporters of the Artemis
for subsequent development and demonstration contracts.
program and the 2024 goal, concerns remain about cost and
schedule. For example, in its report on FY2020 NASA
appropriations, the Senate Appropriations Committee
To facilitate Artemis lunar landings and other missions,
wrote: “While there is support for the mission, it is difficult
NASA is developing a modular platform, known as
to weigh the impacts of the accelerated mission on the
Gateway, to be placed in a permanent orbit around the
overall budget of NASA” (S.Rept. 116-127). For FY2021,
Moon. The first two Gateway modules—the Power and
NASA requested a budget increase of $2.6 billion (about
Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics
12%); FY2021 appropriations have not yet been enacted,
Outpost (HALO, a pressurized habitat for astronauts)—are
but the House-passed bill (H.R. 7617) would provide none
currently in development, with launch planned in 2023.
of the requested increase. NASA notified Congress in
August 2020 that cost growth in the development of SLS
Gateway is intended to serve as a depot for storing supplies,
will exceed 30%, triggering a reauthorization requirement.
a platform for science experiments, a location where
In addition, repeated slips in the launch dates for Artemis I
subsystems launched separately can be assembled and
and II—September 2018 and August 2021 in the baseline
integrated, and a rendezvous point where astronauts can
plan; currently November 2021 and August 2023—have
transfer between Orion and the HLS and potentially, at
made some policymakers doubt the credibility of the 2024
some point in the future, depart for other, more distant
schedule for Artemis III.
destinations, such as Mars. NASA initially planned for
Gateway to be the Orion-HLS transfer point for the Artemis
Moon or Mars?
III lunar landing in 2024. In March 2020, it announced that
Is returning to the Moon the primary goal for human
Gateway will no longer be essential for that mission, to
exploration of space, or is it an interim step to gain
ensure that any unexpected delays in Gateway development
experience for future expeditions to Mars? While this
do not jeopardize the planned 2024 lunar landing. It did not
distinction is to some extent a matter of emphasis, the
immediately announce an alternative mission architecture.
debate continues. For example, the NASA Authorization
Act of 2020 (H.R. 5666) states that “the Nation’s human
Other Elements
space exploration goal should be to send humans to the
In addition to Orion, SLS, HLS, and Gateway, NASA is
surface of Mars,” although “reducing the risk and
planning robotic precursor missions to explore potential
demonstrating the capabilities and operations needed to
landing sites, as well as developing technologies for lunar
support a human mission to Mars may require human
surface power, in-situ use of lunar resources such as water,
exploration of the cis-lunar vicinity [i.e., the region around
and other lunar surface systems such as rovers and habitats
the Moon and between Earth and the Moon] and lunar
for missions after Artemis III. The detailed profiles of those
surface.” This debate may drive how Artemis missions are
future missions are not yet fully developed.
planned, e.g., whether lunar habitats are designed to be
permanent and whether potential reuse for Mars missions is
Issues for Congress
a major factor in technology choices for lunar missions.
As Congress oversees the progress of the Artemis program
and acts on NASA authorization and appropriations
Role of the Commercial Space Sector
legislation, it may address issues such as the 2024 target
In recent years, NASA has placed growing emphasis on
date for the first landing, cost and schedule concerns, the
procuring services from the commercial space industry. For
relative exploration priority of the Moon versus Mars, and
example, where it used to use NASA-owned space shuttles
the role of the commercial space sector.
to carry cargo and crews to the International Space Station,
it now buys cargo transport (and soon, also crew transport)
Why 2024?
as a commercial service on commercially owned spacecraft.
As recently as early 2019, NASA was planning the first
post-Apollo human lunar landing for 2028. The acceleration
Orion and the SLS are being developed as NASA-owned
to 2024 was announced by Vice President Pence in March
systems under the traditional model, but NASA intends the
2019. Supporters of the 2024 goal argue that it instils a
HLS to be commercially owned and lunar surface descent
sense of urgency, focus, and motivation, and that the U.S.
and ascent to be a commercial service. Not all policymakers
space program is in competition with Russia and China.
support this approach. For example, H.R. 5666 would direct
Opponents argue that the 2024 date is driven by political
that the U.S. government should retain “full ownership of
goals rather than by technical or scientific considerations.
the human landing system.”
As Congress considers the schedule for Artemis, it may
Daniel Morgan, Specialist in Science and Technology
examine what geopolitical or other benefits a 2024 landing

Artemis: NASA’s Program to Return Humans to the Moon


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