“That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Those famous words uttered by Neil Armstrong could soon be spoken by a woman. That’s the goal of the first phase of NASA’s Artemis programme: to put down two astronauts—the first woman and the next man—at the lunar South Pole in 2024. The extremely tight schedule is predicated on validating the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful launcher since the Saturn V, as well as the Orion spacecraft for which the European Space Agency (ESA) is supplying the service module, and on developing a whole new Human Landing System (HLS) that will be the equivalent of the Apollo programme’s Lunar Excursion Module (LEM).
Timeline for 1st phase of Artemis
- Artemis I in November 2021: first SLS launch and first circumlunar flight of Orion
- Artemis II in 2023: first flight with a crew of 4 astronauts around the Moon
- Artemis III in 2024: second crewed flight with 4 astronauts and landing of 2 astronauts at lunar South Pole in the HLS
Artist’s impression of the Orion spacecraft approaching the Gateway international outpost (post-2024). Credits: NASA.
Gateway outpost in lunar orbit
“The initial plan was to return a crew to the Moon in 2028,” explains Jean Blouvac, Head of Exploration and Human Spaceflight programmes at CNES. “But U.S. President Donald Trump directed NASA to bring the date forward to 2024. The current Artemis plan (released 21 September 2020) doesn’t indicate whether crews will dock to the Gateway. This outpost in lunar orbit, which will be needed to sustain our presence on the Moon and as a stepping stone to more-distant destinations, is being built alongside the first phase of Artemis. Its first modules are scheduled to be transported by a commercial U.S. launch supplier starting in 2023.”
Europe will be contributing to construction of the Gateway at a later stage, supplying the International Habitat (I-HAB) from 2025, and then in 2026 or 2027 delivering the ESPRIT module that will provide additional communications capabilities, a xenon and hydrazine refuelling system and an observation post. French manufacturers are closely involved in developing these two modules: Thales Alenia Space France is the lead contractor for ESPRIT, working with a team of French subcontractors, while Thales Alenia Space Italy is lead contractor for I-HAB, for which French industry is also supplying avionics and life support subsystems.
“Being involved in an exploration programme like Artemis makes France a core player in key scientific, political, technological, industrial and social endeavours,” notes Amélie Gravier, CNES European and International Affairs Adviser. “We’ll be contributing through ESA’s European Exploration Envelope Programme (E3P), which combines low Earth orbit (ISS), the Moon and Mars within a unified exploration strategy. CNES has a great tradition of international cooperation, and the United States is a longstanding partner.”
European astronauts along for the ride
Three flights of European astronauts to the Gateway from 2025 have already been negotiated with NASA. These flights will prepare for the possibility of putting European astronauts on the Moon in the later phases of Artemis towards the end of the decade.
The Gateway and the Artemis programme are the prelude to establishing a sustainable presence on the Moon and in the longer term sending astronauts to Mars
adds Jean Blouvac.
For the time being, NASA is requesting the budgets required to accomplish the first phase of Artemis and meet the 2024 deadline. The U.S. Congress will be asked to appropriate $3.2 billion dollars before the end of the year, in the context of the presidential election. For the next four years after that, NASA’s most recent estimations are that a further $25 billion will be required, including $16 billion to fund development of the HLS.
The Orion spacecraft, for which ESA is supplying the service and propulsion module. Credits: ESA/D. Ducros.
The Gateway lunar outpost. Credits: ESA/NASA/ATG Medialab, 2019.
Amélie Gravier, CNES European and International Affairs Adviser. Credits: CNES/Emmanuel Grimault, 2019.
Jean Blouvac, CNES Head of Exploration and Human Spaceflight programmes. Credits: CNES/Nicolas Tronquart, 2019.