The Lunar Comeback

Akshanth Sai K

9 min readNov 10, 2023
NASA Johnson Space Center | Credit: Gower Brown

The spirit of curiosity and dedication to explore has led us to this moment of great significance for humanity as we embark on a return to the Moon, a celestial body we last visited nearly half a century ago. The ambitious ARTEMIS program, a collaborative initiative spearheaded by NASA and endorsed by esteemed space agencies from across the globe, is on the precipice of deploying the first woman, the next man, and cutting-edge robotic technology to inscribe our mark upon the lunar landscape again.

ARTEMIS, distinguished by its compelling acronym “Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence, and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun,” promises an era of thrilling cosmic discovery that will undoubtedly make history.

Artemis Program Overview

The Artemis program is a series of missions designed to achieve a set of goals one after the other, paving the way for a new era of lunar exploration.

Artemis Program Milestones

The Artemis mission commenced with the Artemis I in 2022- an unmanned mission that rigorously tested the capabilities of the SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft, achieving lunar orbit before a safe return and splashdown. The Artemis II, scheduled for November 2024, is poised to make history by sending astronauts on an extraordinary journey around the Moon, surpassing human spaceflight records. In a similar momentous stride, the Artemis III, anticipated by the end of 2025, aspires to land the first woman on the Moon’s south pole. Moving ahead, Artemis IV, slated for the late 2020s, envisions the establishment of the “Gateway,” a space station encircling the Moon, mirroring the versatility of the International Space Station. Envisaged Artemis missions, including the Artemis V and VI, will partner with the European Space Agency, thus expanding our human presence in lunar space, marking a thrilling phase of cosmic exploration.

View of Gateway with Orion Approaching | Credit: NASA Johnson, Flickr

Artemis Architecture

Sustainable lunar exploration entails a substantial need for advanced engineering and technological developments due to the challenges posed by the lunar environment. The Moon’s surface is characterized by extreme temperature variations, heightened radiation exposure, and a lack of atmosphere, which requires the creation of durable spacecraft and habitats. The development of efficient propulsion and power generation systems is extremely important. Additionally, resource utilisation, recycling, and waste management, along with a robust communication infrastructure and autonomous system, are crucial for establishing a sustainable human presence on the Moon, reducing dependence on Earth-based resupply missions.

Space Launch System (SLS)

SLS is NASA’s powerful, super-heavy launch vehicle, standing at 322–365 feet. It can carry up to nearly 60,000 pounds to the Moon and is designed to transport astronauts for lunar base construction. It is capable of producing 39 meganewtons of thrust in vacuum, which is 15% more than the Saturn V at liftoff. The main body is split up into 3 stages: the first stage is what we see on the launch pad. It comprises 2 solid rocket boosters and 4 RS-25 engines. These help the rocket to leave the earth’s gravitational force. The second stage uses a single RL-10B-2 engine to travel from low earth orbit to the Moon, to then perform trans-lunar injection by Hoffmann transfer orbit. The upper stage is the payload attached to the Orion spacecraft. The two solid rocket boosters contribute a significant 75% of the rocket’s thrust during launch. These boosters have been upgraded with a five-segment design and advanced avionics, providing 25% more total impulse when compared to the Space Shuttle’s boosters. Together, these components form the backbone of the Artemis program, enabling humanity’s return to the Moon and beyond.

Orion module

This is ESA’s contribution to this program. The Orion spacecraft is a critical component of NASA’s deep-space exploration endeavours. It has three constituent parts: the service module, the crew module and the launch abort system. It weighs around 33000 kgs totally, providing essential resources. It offers a payload volume of up to 20 cubic metres and can transport payloads weighing up to 100 kg, making it a versatile and vital element for all ARTEMIS missions. 77,150 different types of parts and a total of 355,056 individual parts are used on the Orion spacecraft.

The Gateway

Humankind’s inaugural space station in lunar orbit, will offer essential services to ensure the well-being and productivity of astronauts. This includes providing a pressurized environment for mission preparation, scientific activities, meal preparation, exercise, and rest.

When fully assembled and prepared for launch, the SLS will look like this | Credit: NASA

International Habitation (I-HAB):
The International Habitation Module, International Habitat or I-HAB, is designed as the main habitat module of the station. With four docking ports, including two axial connections to other Gateway elements and two radial ports for cargo vehicles, Orion spacecraft, and lunar landers, it ensures versatile access. Designed for remote operation and maintenance, it incorporates robotic interfaces and a robotic arm. Internally, I-HAB offers amenities such as a galley, hygiene systems, exercise equipment, storage, refrigeration, airlocks, and workstations.

Structure of Gateway | Credit: Wikipedia

Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO):
HALO serves as an initial, scaled-down habitation module, focusing on life support for the Orion spacecraft crew and lunar landing preparation. It offers command, control, data handling, energy storage, power distribution capabilities, and communication and tracking systems. HALO accommodates a crew of four, featuring axial and radial docking ports. Body-mounted radiators, batteries, and communication antennae are added to its exterior. It connects to the I-HAB and the Human Landing System.

I-HAB and HALO will be developed by ESA and shall play a crucial role in supporting astronauts for missions in lunar orbit. Within HALO, ESA’s Internal Dosimeter Array (IDA), equipped with instruments provided by JAXA, will be on board to study potential radiation levels inside the Gateway. Additionally, on HALO’s exterior, the Helio-physics Environmental and Radiation Measurement Experiment Suite (HERMES) and the European Radiation Sensors Array (ERSA) will accompany the outpost, serving to measure radiation levels around this vital space station. These combined efforts demonstrate a commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of astronauts on their journey into deep space.

The HALO module, highlighted here, is the centerpiece and building block of the Gateway space station | Credit: NASA

European System Providing Refuelling, Infrastructure and Telecommunication (ESPRIT):
It is ESA’s telecommunication device especially built for the Artemis mission. This consists of:

  1. The HALO-Lunar Communication System is installed on NASA’s Habitation and Logistic module (HALO) for the lunar Gateway. The HLCS permits the Gateway to communicate with astronauts and rovers on the Moon’s surface.
  2. ESPRIT Refuelling Module(ERM) is a core component of this structure and weighs approximately 10 tons when filled with fuel. It has four main functions: transporting cargo, providing storage, fueling the gateway propulsion system, and offering astronauts stunning views of space and the Moon through its windows. The ERM has two primary parts: the pressurized tunnel, which enables astronauts to move between docking ports and offers storage for up to 1.5 tons of cargo, and the unpressurized system, housing the module’s computer and refuelling systems. Batteries on the surface maintain the ERM’s temperature during its journey to the Gateway orbit, making it a vital asset for the Gateway missions.

Human Landing System (HLS)

The Human Landing System (HLS) is a multifaceted project encompassing a wide array of technologies aimed at ensuring the safe and successful journey of astronauts to the Moon. It enables astronauts to remain on the lunar surface, conduct experiments, and collect data, typically for a week. The key aspects include rocket propulsion, spacecraft design, life support system, and communications.

Instead of manufacturing the HLS internally, NASA sought help from the booming private space companies, inviting proposals from various U.S. aerospace manufacturing companies, such as SpaceX, and Dynetics, and a collaboration between Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. Ultimately, SpaceX’s Starship HLS proposal was chosen, representing a highly modified version of the basic Starship rocket tailored for lunar missions. While comprehensive information on the lunar-specific modifications is limited, the primary changes include the absence of a heat shield and air brakes, as the Starship will only return to Earth when it’s retired. Moreover, the Starship will feature methyl-ox boosters, located midway on the ship to enhance lunar landings and takeoffs, reducing the risk of lunar regolith damage.

Artist’s rendering of SpaceX Starship human lander design | Credit: SpaceX

In missions involving the Starship HLS, a crew would launch using the SLS and Orion capsule, rendezvous with the Starship in lunar orbit, descend to the lunar surface, and return to Earth. The details of the lunar orbit rendezvous are still under development. Elon Musk has suggested that the Starship could potentially play a role in the first lunar base at the end of its service life, but this remains uncertain.

International Collaboration

The Artemis represents a monumental shift in humanity’s lunar exploration efforts, as it sets out not only to reach and land on the Moon but also to establish a sustainable presence on it. This venture starkly contrasts with the earlier missions, which were primarily politically driven, and often characterized by a more brute-force approach to simply placing astronauts on lunar soil. During those times, understanding of space conditions and the lunar atmosphere was limited, and the primary goal was to claim victory in the Space Race.

The Artemis program is motivated by a different set of objectives. It aims to build a sustainable lunar camp. This ambitious goal recognizes the Moon’s potential as a stepping stone for future deep space exploration. Missions have been designed to facilitate longer stays on the lunar surface, which enables the development of technologies required for more extended missions into the cosmos. It also acknowledges the harshness of the lunar environment and leverages the knowledge gained from the Apollo missions to better prepare astronauts for the challenges they will face. Mission planning is rooted in a profound understanding of space conditions and an emphasis on astronaut safety, well-being, and efficiency. The program incorporates advanced technology, international collaboration, and a dedication to making lunar exploration more sustainable by harnessing local resources, such as water ice.

The Artemis Accords mark a significant step forward in international cooperation for space exploration, which aims to take humans to the Moon. These establish a framework of principles designed to guide collaborative efforts among nations participating in lunar exploration missions. The core tenets of the Artemis Accords include a commitment to peaceful exploration and interoperability, ensuring that all activities conducted under the program are for peaceful purposes. Transparency is another key principle emphasizing the need to be open in their activities to avoid confusion and potential conflicts. The accords also express the importance of heritage preservation, responsible use of space resources, and the optimum disposal of orbital debris.

Displayed are the flags of the nations that have signed the Artemis Accords | Credit: NASA


The Artemis program is not just a journey back to the Moon. It is a symbol of our commitment to exploring the universe. Recalling the iconic moments of the Apollo era and the unimaginable technological marvels on the horizon, this mission is trying to redefine sustainable lunar development and shape the future of deep space exploration. It represents a bridge between our glorious past and a promising future. It is not just the Moon we are reaching for, but a future filled with possibilities.

It serves as a beacon of hope, inspiring generations and proving that there are no limits to what we can achieve, when we work together and shoot for the stars, or the Moon. The Moon is our stepping stone, and the cosmos awaits. Our voyage has just begun!




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