+++ Update as of 3 September 2022: The Artemis I mission to the Moon has been postponed. More information here +++
On 22 August 2022, NASA gave the green light for the first launch window of Artemis I. From a technical point of view, the signs are good for the first flight of the new SLS heavy-lift launch vehicle with the Orion spacecraft on board. The Artemis I mission is scheduled to last 42 days and – if the launch is successful on 29 August – return to Earth on 10 October. The Orion spacecraft, whose service and propulsion module is the European Service Module (ESM), mainly built in Germany, will orbit the Moon several times. The launch will take place from Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Apollo lunar missions also launched from here.
"This is an unprecedented vote of confidence by NASA in the capabilities of our industry and Germany as a partner,” says Walther Pelzer, head of the German Space Agency at DLR and DLR Executive Board member. “We have a 50 percent share in the service modules for the Artemis missions, which are being manufactured by a European industrial consortium under the industrial leadership of Airbus, as ESA's prime contractor, and assembled in Bremen." The first ESM is named ‘Bremen’ after the Hanseatic city.
The premiere of the ‘return to lunar orbit’ will take place without astronauts. Instead, two measuring mannequins from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) will be on board for the first lunar flight in 50 years. Helga and Zohar will sit in the seats of the future crew and record radiation exposure during the flight. They are part of the Matroshka AstroRad Radiation Experiment (MARE) experiment, led by the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Cologne.
Orion cannot fly without the service module
The German Space Agency at DLR, based in Bonn, manages Germany's contributions to ESA on behalf of the Federal Government. Germany is currently the largest partner of the European Space Agency, alongside France. Germany is the largest contributor to ESA's exploration programme, which finances the European service modules for NASA's Orion spacecraft. A total of ten ESA member states (Germany and France, as well as Belgium, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland) supply parts for the ESM.
Orion cannot fly without the service module. It is the heart of the new spacecraft and sits below the crew capsule. The ESM contains the main engine and supplies electricity via four solar arrays. It also regulates the climate and temperature in the spacecraft and stores fuel, oxygen and water supplies for the crew. The Orion spacecraft, and with it the ESM, is considered a key milestone for future astronautical exploration missions to the Moon, but also to Mars and beyond. NASA has currently ordered six ESMs from ESA, the next of which will be delivered to NASA for the Artemis II mission in early 2023.
"Europe's provision of the ESMs is part of a transatlantic barter. We are thus compensating NASA for the costs of operating and supplying the ISS," explains DLR Executive Board member Walther Pelzer, adding: "I am particularly pleased that the ESM is building on the expertise of the five European ATV transporters and developing it further." The ATV space freighters regularly supplied the International Space Station (ISS) from 2008 to 2015. They were also largely developed and built at Airbus in Bremen.
The second Artemis mission, currently planned for the end of 2023, will be the first to include astronauts. The third mission, Artemis III, will then land the first woman and the next man on the Moon. From 2024 onwards, ESA is to be involved in the Artemis missions to the Lunar Gateway, a small station in lunar orbit, with a total of three places for European astronauts.
The Orion spacecraft
The Orion spacecraft consists of two main parts: the US crew module and the European Service Module. The crew module resembles the capsule shape of the Apollo spacecraft, but is about twice as large. It can hold up to four astronauts, instead of three. The capsule, which weighs around 10 tonnes, also houses the life support system and the flight controls. At the end of a mission, the capsule will re-enter Earth's atmosphere and land in the Pacific, after deploying a parachute. The crew will then be rescued there by ships and helicopters. Fully loaded, the ESM weighs about 15 tonnes at launch. At the end of each mission, the ESM will separate from the Orion capsule and burn up in Earth's atmosphere.