This is the reason Artemis is heading again to the moon

‘I love it when it just turns into a star!’ Christina Koch exclaimed. The NASA astronaut and three colleagues, dressed in blue flight apparel, were standing on a knoll at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida peering into the night sky as the most powerful rocket that had ever launched turned into a pinprick of light.

Minutes earlier, at 1:47 a.m. on November 16, 2022, the 32-story flying machine known rather prosaically as the Space Launch System (SLS) had lifted off. Through my binoculars, the rocket’s orange pillar of exhaust was nearly blinding. Every crackle of its 8.8 million pounds of thrust—equivalent to 31 jumbo jets—rattled my lungs.

That colossal rocket, hurtling downrange at more than 17,500 miles an hour, hoisted aloft the Orion spacecraft, designed to carry astronauts farther into space than they have ever ventured. To measure how deep space will affect astronauts, the gumdrop-shaped crew module carried a mannequin named Campos and two female “phantoms,” or artificial torsos. Over the subsequent 25 days, 10 hours, and 53 minutes, the test dummies would soar to more than a quarter million miles from Earth before plunging back through the atmosphere at nearly 25,000 miles an hour. The next Orion will have four people on board as it voyages around the moon. Koch (whose name is pronounced Cook) hoped to be among them. 

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Sitting portrait of woman in space suit.

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Before Artemis ever sends humans to the lunar surface, NASA will run high-fidelity tests on Earth. When astronauts Drew Feustel and Zena Cardman conducted mock moonwalks last October, they each wore a training suit weighing more than 80 pounds to simulate a real suit’s range of motion and weight in lunar gravity.

Rocket model photographed inside the wind tunnel chamber.

The Artemis moon program will fly its crews atop a rocket called the Space Launch System. NASA ran early aerodynamic tests for the SLS with this 1:250 scale model, inside a 14-inch-wide wind tunnel at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. This tunnel was also used to design Apollo’s Saturn V rocket and the space shuttle.

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File and smoke from what looks like a very large pipe on hillsite.

To get the astronauts moon bound, SLS relies on a pair of 177-foot-tall side boosters filled with solid polymer fuel. When ignited, as seen here during a July 2022 test firing in Utah, just one of these boosters chews through about six tons of propellant a second and gives off 3.6 million pounds of thrust. The boosters are the biggest of their kind ever built.

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The launch of this 2022 mission, named Artemis I, marked a milestone for NASA, which aims to put humans back on the moon for the first time in more than 50 years. If all goes as planned, Artemis II could send a crew on a lunar flyby as soon as November 2024. Then comes Artemis III—a crewed landing—as soon as late 2025, followed by more missions to establish a lunar presence.

Why go back to the moon? For one, the lunar surface remains a scientific wonderland. Its rock and dust chronicle the sun’s changing activity over 4.5 billion years. Its craters could reveal secrets from the ancient bombardments that also hit Earth. The icy schmutz around the lunar north and south poles might offer insights into how water finds its way through the solar system. Artemis plans to land crews near the south pole to study these suspected frozen water deposits, a step toward possibly harvesting ice for water, oxygen, and rocket fuel.

There are political calculations too: international cooperation, aerospace contracts, skilled jobs.

Beyond that, the moon is preparation for a crewed journey to Mars, perhaps in the 2030s, as part of the agency’s push to find out whether the red planet ever harbored life. The moon and Mars differ, but both are forbidding realms where humans need technologies such as pressurized habitats and advanced space suits to survive. And the moon is only a few days away. With the engines we have today, it could take seven to nine months to reach Mars.

Artemis has faced challenges. Years of delays. Billions in cost overages. Skepticism that humans are even needed for space exploration. But if Artemis succeeds, it won’t just return astronauts to the lunar surface. It could also begin an era of vast possibility and humbling responsibility: one where humankind regularly lives and works on worlds beyond our own. “This is turning the first page on a brand-new chapter of space exploration,” said Jacob Bleacher, NASA’s chief exploration scientist.

The rocket in the looking like cage structure.

For Artemis missions, SLS launches the habitable Orion spacecraft into lunar orbit. The two vehicles are built separately, so before any launch, NASA must join them within the world’s largest single-story structure: the Vehicle Assembly Building, at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The VAB is seen here holding the “full stack” for the uncrewed Artemis I test in March 2022.

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One clear night last October, astronaut Zena Cardman clambered through a field of lava rock in a mock-up space suit, her eyes locked on the moonlike landscape. Cardman, a geobiologist, and fellow astronaut Drew Feustel, a geophysicist, were on a mission to collect rock samples near Arizona’s S P Crater, an 820-foot-tall cinder cone that formed during an ancient volcanic eruption.

Long shadows slithered across the craggy landscape. At a distance, a scientist in a baseball cap wheeled a spotlight around on a small cart, keeping it trained on the two astronauts. When Cardman and Feustel dipped out of the glare—meant to replicate the harsh sunlight at the lunar south pole—they couldn’t see more than 30 feet. The duo tried orienting themselves with low-resolution maps, meant to simulate working off satellite images. No GPS or compass bearings were allowed: Neither would be much use on the moon missions. “It was actually remarkably difficult to pinpoint where we were,” Cardman said. “Mission Control is telling us, ‘We’re pretty sure you should see a hill in front of you’ … and we’re like: ‘Maybe!’ ”

The main goal of this simulated moonwalk and other analog missions isn’t to train astronauts. Instead, they’re meant to test everything else, from the chisels that moonwalkers will wield to the procedures that Mission Control will follow back on Earth. And then, after years of careful rehearsal, it will be time for liftoff. 

“It’s starting to sink in that it’s real,” said Jessica Meir, a member of the astronaut corps since 2013. “Nothing of this scale has ever launched during my lifetime.”

Meir has prepared for this moment since she was five years old. When her first-grade teacher asked her class to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up, she didn’t just draw an astronaut—she drew one on the moon. A biologist by training, Meir once focused her research on how penguins and geese respond physiologically to extreme environments. Now she works in one. From September 2019 to April 2020 she lived aboard the International Space Station (ISS), and performed nearly 22 hours of space walks outside the station with crewmate Koch—the first space walks ever conducted by an all-woman team.

Technician photographed holding connecting cord by Test Stand

Virtual missions have flown many times thanks to the Systems Integration Lab at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Engineers such as NASA contractor Don Biggs run launch simulations for SLS’s intricate flight software on real avionics hardware, which is mounted on a curved stand to mimic its layout inside the rocket.

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In its early days, NASA had a narrow view of the “right stuff” for astronauts: all male, mostly military test pilots. Today they might be submariners or seismologists, programmers or physicians—women and men from an eclectic array of backgrounds. One of the Artemis program’s stated goals is to put the first woman and person of color on the moon. 

“We’re bringing the spirit of the entire planet with us,” Meir told me.

Bill Nelson recalls exactly where he was when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon: in a hotel room in London, just before 4 a.m., enraptured by the grainy broadcast on a black-and-white TV. He grew up in Melbourne, Florida, as scientists and rocketeers were turning nearby Cape Canaveral—Apollo’s eventual home port—into a missile test site. Later, in his career as a congressman and senator from Florida, he established himself as a legislative leader on space policy. In 1986 he even flew on a six-day space shuttle mission. Now 80 and NASA administrator, he is overseeing Artemis’s first missions. 

Artemis as we know it today grew out of a Trump-era push to put humans on the moon as a stepping stone to Mars. The Biden administration has embraced it with minor tweaks. But arguably, the Artemis era began on February 1, 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during reentry and killed its seven crew members. The disaster, precipitated by mid-launch damage to the shuttle’s fragile heat shield, hastened the fleet’s retirement—and raised the question of what would follow. 

Silver rocket at starting moment against dark sky.

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Flame for exposure.

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Left: In April 2023, SpaceX conducted the first full test flight of the silvery rocket known as Starship. The reusable vehicle has more thrust than SLS, and a variant of its upper stage will act as Artemis III’s lunar lander. Many tests await Starship: Four minutes into flight, SpaceX blew up this rocket for safety after it began to flip uncontrollably.

Right: Unlike NASA, SpaceX rapidly builds and tests many prototypes of its rockets, speeding up the design process and increasing the risk of “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” This fireball, one such “disassembly,” occurred in December 2020 during a landing attempt for a Starship upper stage. In May 2021, an updated vehicle landed successfully.

Two people in full space suits with headlights working on the field at night. One with the heavy loaded stroller.

NASA has long sought moonscapes here on Earth to prepare for lunar missions. Among them is Arizona’s lava-encrusted San Francisco Volcanic Field, which is peppered with hundreds of extinct volcanoes. Last October, astronauts Cardman (at left) and Feustel trekked for miles across this terrain to test how well Artemis crews will be able to navigate in harsh lunar lighting with only maps.

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In 2004, the George W. Bush administration unveiled a moon-to-Mars strategy to replace the shuttle, enshrined into law as the Constellation program. The initiative, which included Orion, soon blew its budget and fell behind schedule, and in 2010 the Obama administration proposed canceling it. But lawmakers, co-led by Nelson, voted to keep Orion going and backed two new rocket strategies: the Commercial Crew program, which contracts with SpaceX and Boeing to ferry astronauts to the ISS; and the SLS, whose design borrowed as much technology as possible from the 1970s-era space shuttle.

All of this represents a substantial national commitment. The NASA Office of Inspector General estimates Artemis’s total cost through September 2025 will hit $93 billion. Still, total spending on Apollo exceeded $280 billion in today’s dollars, and after adjusting for inflation, Apollo’s peak annual cost was roughly 60 percent more than NASA’s entire budget today.

Launching moment with the rocket coming out of smoke at night.

At 1:47 a.m. ET on November 16, 2022, the Artemis I mission roared into the skies, at the time the most powerful rocket launch ever witnessed. To capture this image safely, photographer Dan Winters placed a sound-triggered camera a thousand feet from the launchpad. During the launch, Winters and other spectators had to stand more than three miles away. Even at that distance, the rocket was louder than a rock concert.

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For all the superficial similarities to Apollo—the big rocket, the gumdrop capsule—Artemis has modern ambitions. The missions it will fly will be longer: Orion was designed to keep a crew of four alive for up to 21 days. And the electronics on board SLS and Orion are more sophisticated. But NASA’s newest vehicles still rely on Apollo’s manufacturing network.

Both are born in New Orleans 15 miles east of downtown at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility. For decades the 43-acre plant has played a key role in the agency’s rocket manufacturing. Once a French sugar plantation, the facility was taken over in 1961 by NASA, eager for a site with a deepwater port to build Apollo’s Saturn V rocket. The first stage was made here. So was the space shuttle’s fuel tank. “Until recently, you didn’t get out of Earth orbit unless you went through Michoud,” said Amanda Gertjejansen, an engineer with Boeing, an SLS prime contractor.

The construction of SLS core stages moves across Michoud from east to west. Curved aluminum panels, which arrive in gigantic wooden crates, are welded into cylindrical segments that get stacked and then welded together. After welds are checked, insulation is added, and avionics systems are installed, finished core stages are floated by barge to Florida. Orion also makes its way to the Sunshine State: Following construction of its main metallic skeleton, led by Lockheed Martin, it’s shipped to Kennedy Space Center for assembly.

Nothing of this scale has ever launched during my lifetime … We’re bringing the spirit of the entire planet with us.

Before that barge ride, the core stage sits in a cavernous room on its side for final assembly. Safety glasses on, Gertjejansen led me around the rocket. At 27.6 feet in diameter and 212 feet long when fully assembled, it felt preposterously big: a pharaonic monument awaiting a final lift into place. Silvery piping ran along the outside to feed fuel to the engines. When we poked our heads into the engine section—the part of the rocket she manages—the plumbing-stuffed cavity had the feel of a cramped jungle gym.

As sophisticated as this behemoth is, artisans contribute its finishing touches. Some of the foam insulation is hand-sprayed. Chessboard-like markers along the rocket’s sides—used to track its orientation and speed from afar—are hand-painted. “When you think of building a rocket, you think of rocket scientists,” Gertjejansen told me. “Those are only a very small part.”

At NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, a wall of TV monitors features live video feeds, from every conceivable angle, of Launch Complex 39B, the Artemis launchpad. During tests and launch attempts, this room holds a team of experienced SLS engineers, ready to troubleshoot a problem. “You put plans in place to deal with the things that you don’t plan on, so when they happen, you’re not reacting—you’re responding,” said David Beaman, who manages this team and hundreds of other engineers.

Woman astronaut in the space vehicle

The Artemis II mission will be the second voyage into space for astronaut Christina Koch, seen here in Building 9 at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Koch previously set a record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman, with a total of 328 days in space, and participated in the first all-female space walks.

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Portrait of a man in blue flight suit on the background of spaceship cockpit with two round windows.

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Portrait of a man taken through the small round window in chamber gate.

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NASA’s Reid Wiseman and the Canadian Space Agency’s Jeremy Hansen will be joining Koch when Artemis II, the program’s first crewed mission, flies around the moon. Wiseman is the mission’s commander.

Man in blue NASA uniform.

Astronaut Victor Glover will be piloting the four-person voyage. The California native has logged more than 3,000 flight hours and nearly six months on the International Space Station. “You hear people refer to ‘moon shots’ anytime humans do something great,” he says. “It’s going to be amazing for our generation to have its own actual moon shot.”

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Beaman’s father was one of the engineers for the Saturn V rocket, and eventually Beaman found himself in his father’s line of work. He started with the shuttle program and took over its booster team. Then Beaman helped establish the structure of NASA’s SLS team, painfully aware of the failures that the shuttle had endured—not just the technical ones but the organizational ones too. 

He considers NASA’s current safety approach to be less susceptible to human error: a strategy based on taking the extra time to make sure every nagging concern is resolved. “If it means making a few hard decisions, and waiting a few more days, and getting a little more data, we’re gonna do that,” he told me. 

NASA scrubbed Artemis I’s first launch attempt in August 2022—attended by VIPs including Vice President Kamala Harris—amid concerns over weather, a misbehaving temperature sensor, and a hydrogen fuel leak. The following month another attempt was called off because of more leaking. Next came Hurricane Ian, and then in November, Hurricane Nicole, which buffeted the rocket on the launchpad with hundred-mile-an-hour gusts. Then another leak appeared, hours before its scheduled November 16 launch. With the rocket almost fully fueled—and dangerous to approach—NASA sent a “red crew” out to hand-tighten nuts on a valve. “The rocket, it’s alive. It’s creaking. It’s making venting noises. It’s pretty scary,” said Trenton Annis, who helped make the repair.

There’s nothing inevitable about us venturing beyond Earth’s atmosphere, let alone going to the moon.

Finally, after meeting the 489 criteria necessary for launch, Artemis I was on its way. On November 28, Orion flew beyond the moon to more than 268,500 miles away—nearly 20,000 miles farther than any other “human rated” round-trip mission—and then on December 11 plunked into the ocean off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. “This is what mission success looks like,” a relieved Mike Sarafin, Artemis I’s mission manager, said after splashdown.

Artemis II is a go, a 10-day sojourn around the moon that will come within 6,500 miles of the lunar surface. Koch, who watched alongside me as Artemis I launched, received the historic assignment in March. Agency officials had tried to surprise her and her NASA crewmates with a clandestine in-person meeting. Two of them ran late; the third dialed in while coming from a doctor’s appointment. Mild embarrassment soon gave way to elation. 

Koch, an electrical engineer and one of Artemis II’s mission specialists, has spent her career chasing the allure of the remote, from working at a South Pole research station to helping build a science instrument that’s aboard Juno, a spacecraft now orbiting Jupiter. Three military pilots will be joining her: NASA’s Reid Wiseman and Victor Glover, and the Canadian Space Agency’s Jeremy Hansen.

Wiseman, Artemis II’s commander, served as NASA’s chief astronaut—who chooses crews but can’t join them—until two days before Artemis I launched. He regained his flight eligibility just in time. Glover, Artemis II’s pilot, was the second-in-command on NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission to the ISS, during which he spent 168 days in orbit. Hansen, Koch’s fellow mission specialist, was the first Canadian to supervise the training of a NASA astronaut class. Artemis II will be his first spaceflight.

Rover photographed in the field at night under starry skies.

Last October, NASA’s space exploration vehicle, a concept rover that can house two people for two weeks, traversed the Arizona desert for tests conducted with Japan’s space agency, JAXA, which may provide similar vehicles to future Artemis crews. Long term, NASA envisions using pressurized rovers to transport astronauts across the lunar surface. One day, such vehicles may even roll across the surface of Mars.

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Glover will be the first Black astronaut to venture beyond low Earth orbit. Koch and Hansen will be the first woman and non-U.S. citizen, respectively, to do the same. 

Preparations for the mission are well under way. The SLS core stage for Artemis II is nearly ready for its barge ride to Florida. In a bright room in Kennedy Space Center, technicians in white “bunny suits” have been testing and assembling the mission’s Orion spacecraft, with the Artemis III Orion taking shape nearby. A team led by astronaut Stan Love has been training to serve as Artemis II’s capcoms, the main points of contact between the crew and Mission Control, ready to relay technical directions or detect the quaver in an exhausted astronaut’s voice.

Then, as soon as November 2024, NASA plans to start launching pieces of a small space station called Gateway into orbit around the moon. The space station will act as a staging ground for weeks-long missions to a lunar outpost with habitats, power stations, landing pads, and pressurized rovers—all of which are still in the concept stage.

This immense infrastructure would be too much for the United States to build alone. So Artemis is teaming up with foreign partners. For more than 22 years, the ISS has orbited 250 miles above our heads with humans on board, thanks to collaboration among the U.S., Russia, Canada, Europe, and Japan. This union has spread the station’s costs around and made canceling the program diplomatically difficult. NASA has drawn on those lessons for Artemis: The European Space Agency (ESA) provides Orion’s service module, which contains the spacecraft’s solar arrays and main engine. That cooperation also extends to Gateway, which NASA is building with ESA and the space agencies of Canada and Japan. 

And NASA is courting private companies to act as moon couriers, in hopes of becoming one of many customers in a lunar economy. A flotilla of privately owned robotic landers will transport science instruments and an ice-hunting rover to the moon. At its base in Texas, SpaceX is developing Starship, a reusable rocket even more powerful than SLS. The Artemis III astronauts who land on the moon will leave Earth in an Orion launched by SLS, but then they’ll transfer to a version of Starship’s upper stage to make their lunar descent.

Whether this vision will really yield a sustained human presence on the moon, let alone Mars-bound astronauts, is an open question. Artemis is still in its early days. Starship’s first full test flight exploded minutes into launch in April. There’s also public support to consider. Since 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, multiple polls have found that less than a quarter of Americans thought that sending people to the moon should be a top NASA priority. Even during Apollo’s days, human spaceflight attracted criticism for spending billions that could address earthbound concerns. Now we’re returning to the moon at a time of climate and biodiversity crises, rising political extremism, glaring racial inequalities, and war between Russia and Ukraine. 

Against this grim backdrop, NASA astronauts are acutely aware that they’re not just public figures but also inspirational symbols: of exploration, of science, of the national spirit. Koch has wrestled with how to handle these expectations. For 328 days, she lived and worked aboard the ISS, setting a record for the longest spaceflight by a woman. Her impulse was to downplay the milestone. Then a former colleague reminded her that her achievement might give people a sense of greater possibilities. 

There’s nothing inevitable about us venturing beyond Earth’s atmosphere, let alone going to the moon. In microgravity our blood breaks down. Our bones get brittle. Our eyesight worsens. Without constant vigilance, we can perish in an instant. Overcoming our biological limits, hundreds of thousands of people have dreamed, planned, and built for decades to make the journey outward not only possible but routine. If Artemis’s vision is realized, that could extend all the way to the moon—and maybe even farther. As Koch sees it, these launches are hard-won victories, with setback after setback giving way to one of the purest of human emotions: joy at surpassing our limits.

“How awesome it is that as a species, as humanity, we are undertaking this right now—that we have decided that it’s that important,” Koch said. “It’s because we love exploration. It’s because we believe in the power of learning.” 

Michael Greshko, a former staff science writer, gave readers a tour of a well-preserved dinosaur fossil in the August 2023 issue. 

This story appears in the October 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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