For the first time in nearly 50 years, a crew-capable spacecraft is headed to the moon. Early Wednesday morning, NASA counted down the Artemis 1 mission from the same Florida launch pad used by Apollo 10 in 1969.
The Orion capsule will orbit the moon later this month. The plan is that Artemis will provide the space agency with much of the information it needs to continue developing spacecraft to take astronauts back to the lunar surface, and eventually, on to Mars. Stephen Hackett, cohost of the space podcast Liftoff, joined Texas Standard to talk about the new mission. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: We’ve seen a bit of a space renaissance over the past few years, from NASA’s own science-related projects to the rise of private space companies. But the Artemis 1 mission that took off today is a pretty big deal in terms of space exploration. What is it that makes it so significant to you?
Stephen Hackett: It’s absolutely a big deal. After the end of the space shuttle program, we really were kind of stuck in terms of getting a crew to space from American soil. And SpaceX and others are working to supply missions to the International Space Station, but there hasn’t been anything really since Apollo to get us further out into space. And so the SLS rocket, this Artemis 1 mission, is the first big step to put boots back on the moon for the first time in 50 years.
Why put boots back on the moon? What is it that researchers are hoping to gain from a lunar return?
I really think it’s two things. First of all, the technology we have now to study the moon and its makeup is drastically better than we had in the Apollo days. For instance, some of the landing sites that are being penciled out for future Artemis missions include areas of the moon near the poles that may have large quantities of water ice. And that means that we can not only have water available to our crew, but you can hopefully break that down to generate things like fuel. Something that we’ve read about in science fiction for a long time, it’s within our reach in these regions on the moon.
But the big idea here is to take these missions and roll the knowledge up into an eventual crewed mission to Mars. Don’t get me wrong, that’s probably years – if not a decade or more – down the road. But again, it’s this first step, so we can learn more about our celestial neighbor, the moon, but also with an eye cut towards Mars.
I’ve heard some pretty wild ideas about possibly having a staging area for Mars launches sort of permanently based on the lunar surface. Is that science fiction, or are we closing in on science fact?
I think we’re inching closer to science fact as time goes on. For instance, if you look at SpaceX’s Starship program, which is kind of in parallel with this Artemis program NASA’s doing, their concept is to be able to lift off a large vehicle from the surface of the moon, which has not been done before. If you go back and look at that Apollo footage – you know, it’s on YouTube now, which is just wild – the lunar lander that took back off to rendezvous was very small And they had to do that because they had to pack all their fuel, all their supplies with them. So as our capabilities grow in lunar space, hopefully it does mean that we can go to the moon, go to cislunar space, and then use that as a launching pad elsewhere. But time will tell how feasible that becomes.
This means that, I guess humans will soon be headed to the moon again? Is there any timeline for that? And what is the timeline for this mission?
So this mission will go through December 11 or so. The Orion space capsule, as we’re talking about now, has separated from the rocket and is on its way to the moon. It will orbit the moon for roughly six days and then come back and splash down in the Pacific Ocean again, following a template set by the Apollo program, a very successful template in terms of how these missions can look after this. Artemis 2 and 3, that’s when we get into crewed missions. And there are some questions around those timelines. There’s also discussion about how you actually get down to the surface of the moon just because you have a rocket that can get you there. Does it mean you can get down to the surface? And so SpaceX, NASA, its other partners are working on that lunar landing component. And that’s not quite done at this point. So there are some more pieces that need to fall into place.
As someone who follows space news closely, how did it feel seeing the liftoff today?
It was absolutely amazing. This mission has its roots back 20 years and they spent a whole bunch of money, over $20 billion. But to see it fly, you kind of forget about all the budgetary and time overruns. And it’s just amazing what humankind can build.