Mad About Science: The Artemis Program

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.” 

— President John F. Kennedy, Sept. 12, 1962 

“Not because they are easy, but because they are hard” has been a rallying cry ever since President Kennedy spoke those words 60 years ago. Though he did not survive to see it, JFK kept his promise when Americans took one giant leap for mankind by setting foot on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.

Some of you reading this paper may recollect that day, while I admittedly wasn’t born for another 21 years after Apollo 11 made history. Now, it seems I may get to witness a moon landing in real-time during my lifetime.

The Artemis Program has been in the works for a long time. Though it was conceptualized in 2017, its roots go back to at least 2005 during the George W. Bush presidential administration. Four presidents later, the first Artemis spacecraft took flight on Nov. 16 of this year.

To avoid any confusion moving forward, Artemis I is the mission designation, while Orion is the name of the actual spacecraft performing the mission.

Before we get too excited about landing on the moon, it’s important to know that there aren’t any people onboard the Orion spacecraft, nor will it be actually landing on the moon. It is uncrewed, having only robots and mannequins aboard, and there are very good reasons for this.

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft launches on the Artemis I flight test, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, from Launch Complex 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls.

The primary objective of Artemis I is to test the technology the rest of the program will be utilizing and to make sure that humans can reach the moon and return home to Earth safely. It’s been almost exactly 50 years since humans last set foot on the moon, so it’s important that NASA tests this new technology on mannequins before we put people at potential risk.

The spacecraft is currently in the middle of its mission, and should return to Earth for its conclusion by Sunday, Dec. 11. 

Orion deployed a number of CubeSats during the mission. These all contained a number of experiments developed by external contractors, ranging from analyzing the effects of cosmic radiation on rehydrated yeast to testing low-thrust plasma propulsion in space. The spacecraft performed two close loops around the moon, and is now headed back toward Earth. A number of high-resolution images have been taken of the mission so far, which are easily found on

The final stage of the mission will be a test of Orion’s heat shields as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. As an object falls at high speeds through the atmosphere, it meets resistance from the air molecules, which creates friction and heat. This is a similar principle to how the brakes on your car work, as they’re converting energy into heat with friction and slowing down your vehicle in the process. Aerobraking is an efficient way to slow down a spacecraft without burning through an immense amount of fuel. It’s also best done at an angle to give the craft the maximum amount of time to slow down and not slam into the ground at ridiculously high speeds. However, the craft needs protective material formed into a heat shield to keep that intense heat away from the instruments and crew.

Upon re-entry, Orion will be traveling at nearly 25,000 miles per hour, or 11,000 meters per second. It’s going to need to slow down to around 13 mph, or six meters per second, by the time it splashes down to avoid destroying the spacecraft. The friction generated by Orion moving through the air that quickly is going to generate an immense amount of heat, subjecting the heat shield to temperatures in excess of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2,760 Celsius. That’s more than enough to melt iron, and frighteningly close to melting tungsten.

This mission lays the groundwork for Artemis II, which will send a group of astronauts around the moon and back to Earth. Artemis III is set to take place in 2025, which will mark the first crewed lunar landing since Apollo 17 in 1972. This mission and the following missions will provide the infrastructure for future astronauts to perform experiments and set up habitats, rovers and deployment on the lunar surface, which will make future landings and return missions much simpler.

These missions will be critical for future crewed missions to Mars or beyond. Additionally, this opens the possibility of mining precious metals from asteroids or the moon itself to avoid further contaminating the surface of the Earth, though that could still be decades away.

Putting a spacecraft anywhere near the moon is a complicated process. It’s not as simple as pointing a rocket at it and flying in a straight line. Objects in orbit move in a circular pattern around their host. NASA engineers need to use these circular motions to their advantage, tracking when the spacecraft will be moving at its fastest or its slowest before applying thrust in the desired direction to “sling” the spacecraft where it needs to go. Once caught in the gravity well of another object — the moon, in this case — the spacecraft needs to apply thrust in the opposite direction to slow itself down to either orbit the object or eventually descend to the surface.

It’s a lot to explain in 1,000 words, so if you’d like to see it in action, come take a look at Kerbal Space Program at the library. KSP makes rocket science an approachable subject by letting you build, launch and pilot rockets with realistic physics, atmospheric conditions and more. 

While you don’t need a degree in astrophysics in order to enjoy it, you can apply real-world algebra and calculus to maximize your efficiency.

If you’re interested in checking it out with friends or family, send me an email at [email protected] and I can set up an appointment for you to explore the program.

Stay curious, 7B.

While we have you ...

... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.

You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.

Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal

You may also like...

Close [x]

Want to support independent local journalism?

The Sandpoint Reader is our town's local, independent weekly newspaper. "Independent" means that the Reader is locally owned, in a partnership between Publisher Ben Olson and Keokee Co. Publishing, the media company owned by Chris Bessler that also publishes Sandpoint Magazine and Sandpoint Online. Sandpoint Reader LLC is a completely independent business unit; no big newspaper group or corporate conglomerate or billionaire owner dictates our editorial policy. And we want the news, opinion and lifestyle stories we report to be freely available to all interested readers - so unlike many other newspapers and media websites, we have NO PAYWALL on our website. The Reader relies wholly on the support of our valued advertisers, as well as readers who voluntarily contribute. Want to ensure that local, independent journalism survives in our town? You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.