What it takes to get to the Moon…And further

by Thomas Van den Wyngaert S5NLA

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – the famous words of Astronaut Neil Armstrong, that are known by almost everyone.  Even though you know these words, most people alive today haven’t actually had the opportunity to witness a Moon landing in their lifetime, as there have only ever been six crewed landings, the last of which was over 50 years ago. . That is about to change because, for the first time in 54 years, we will have humans on the moon. And this time, we’re staying. 

While we left our first footprints on our little grey neighbour with Apollo, the Artemis Missions will see NASA and ESA, alongside other national space agencies, building a permanent base on the Moon. Artemis Base Camp will serve as an outpost for real-world tests of our life support systems, rocket technology and equipment, all while studying the formation of the Earth and Moon.  

Going to space. It goes without saying that this is no easy task, but why?  What is so difficult about loading up a rocket with fuel, and blasting it off into space? Rockets have to go faster than 7.8 kilometres per second to reach space. That is TWENTY times the speed of sound. The only way that we can go this fast, is by expelling a LOT of mass, and very quickly. But if you tried to load a rocket up with a boatload of fuel and blast it off into space, what would happen? You wouldn’t leave the ground. Why? Because the more fuel you add, the more fuel you need to launch. That is why rockets carry the bare minimum of fuel needed to lift off – as it turns out we’re quite lucky here because if Earth’s gravity were 1.5 times stronger, space travel would be physically impossible. (On a side note: This is why we know that if another space-faring civilisation does exist, their planet must be around the same size as ours) This simple fuel-hurdle is the reason why spacecraft have to be so unimaginably huge, and why the Artemis Launch Vehicle – The Space Launch System (SLS) – will stand 100 metres tall and will weigh 2.6 million kilograms.  

Artemis III Launch 

The SLS has two stages, and two 45-metre solid rocket boosters. At T-00:00:00 (Liftoff), all four rocket engines and the two solid boosters come to life, providing 4 million kilograms [kgf] of thrust, and making four crew members airborne. 2 minutes later (T+00:02:00), the two solid rocket boosters are spent, and are dropped from the spacecraft. 6 minutes later (T+00:08:00) the core stage is dropped too, and the upper stage briefly fires, placing the crew module – “Orion” – into orbit.  

Trans-Lunar Orbit 

After the Orion crew complete a systems check, and Mission Control says “Go”, the upper stage reignites. This ‘burn,’ accelerates Orion to a speed of 10.1km/s, the equivalent of thirty times the speed of sound. During their travel in space, the four astronauts will be subjected to radiation, circadian rhythm suppression, muscle deterioration, and weightlessness. So how will NASA and ESA keep them safe? 

As the Artemis crew leaves the atmosphere, they leave the Earth’s natural radiation barrier. This means that they will be left unprotected from the sun’s radiation, and could be exposed to up to 150 times the amount of radiation that we receive on Earth. The Artemis Mission plans to shield its crew with an outer protective metal shell that blocks and reflects radiation. Later protection will involve multiple space agencies building an insulation layer for lunar habitats, which might be made from lunar water.  

This protective metal shell is very small, so crew members have little room to move around. Little movement, along with zero gravity, means that astronauts barely use their muscles while in space. In a NASA study, researchers found that astronauts experience up to 20% loss of muscle mass during 5 to 11 day space missions. ESA is rigorously researching this topic and how to counter it, as shown in their “Around the bed in 60 days” mission, for which 12 volunteers spent 60 days living 6 degrees below horizontal.

Additionally, astronauts on the Space Station do a full circle of Earth every 90 minutes and experience 16 sunsets and sunrises every day. With this unearthly routine, astronauts can struggle to find a natural daily rhythm in space. The Space Station follows Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), which helps keep a consistent schedule, along with regular wake-up and bedtime routines. ESA is studying a method of introducing more consistent schedules to counter this that manipulates circadian rhythms. Using a large multicolour lamp, different wavelengths of light are displayed throughout the day, that simulate natural sunlight, to manipulate when subjects feel tired. These few studies are but a glimpse into the research that NASA and ESA are doing to keep astronauts safe, and you should definitely explore this topic yourself, as you might uncover a new fascination! 

Lunar Orbit 

Artemis IV will see the world building the first Lunar Space Station in orbit around the moon, ‘Gateway.’  With it, we plan to install a dedicated Lunar Lander, along with habitation modules. This means that astronauts will be able to spend extended periods on both Gateway and the surface of the Moon, alongside various unrelated but simultaneous missions.

Lunar Touchdown 

Artemis III will be the longest Moon landing yet, with astronauts staying on the surface of the Moon for a full week! (The current record is 3 days and 3 hours). The Artemis Human Landing System (HLS)will be produced by SpaceX, the world’s first commercial space organisation. ‘Starship’ will serve as a permanent HLS to orbit the moon for future missions, and the sheer size and technology of the vehicle warrant an article in itself 

Starship will land on the South Pole of the moon, and while on the surface, countless measurements and research will be completed that will aid in devising future Mars missions.  

This research will build upon, among others, Japan’s ‘moonshot,’ which recently completed the most precise unmanned  Moon landing to date and NASA’s Mars rover milestone, where they successfully finished testing oxygen production… on Mars itself. 7 days after landing, and after the crew has completed their research, Starship will return astronauts to the Orion Spacecraft which will be orbiting the moon during the mission. The astronauts will then initiate a short burn to return to their home planet. 

SLS; A final statement 

As I’ve briefly mentioned, the SLS will be NASA’s final rocket. No other Moon rockets will be produced by NASA due to political constraints. Artemis itself was only greenlighted after the previous model for it – ‘Constellation Program’ – was cancelled due to budgetary constraints. Luckily, the backlash from workers all across the US who lost their jobs because of this, convinced policymakers to fund NASA once again. But the sad truth is that NASA is too inefficient and burdened by political considerations to be an effective producer of Launch Vehicles. SpaceX’s ‘Falcon 9’ costs but $67 million per launch, and is reusable, while NASA’s Atlas V costs over $120 million and is not reusable. In fact, NASA doesn’t even own Atlas V, and the SLS will cost over $4 Billion. This is because NASA is plagued by old policies such as one that mandates NASA to reuse old rocket equipment. What does this mean? Well, it means that NASA is still using outdated technology that is 50 years old! According to a recent report, “nearly 83 percent of NASA’s facilities are beyond their original design life.” 


It’s clear that the world is evolving beyond the traditional idea of government space agencies, and NASA has said that is leaving the production aspect of space travel, so it can focus more on scientific research while leaving the costly (and risky!) production and research of launch vehicles to more private enterprises. So, if there is one lesson we can draw from NASA, ESA, Artemis, the ISS, and all those before, it is that we all have the power to go where no one has been before. Be it alone, or better together, we can go anywhere. So, where would you like to go?