Artemis 1 is getting ready for its moonshot, and Canada is on board the larger mission.
The uncrewed mission will see the Space Launch System rocket send an Orion spacecraft around the Moon and then back to Earth again. The mission has several launch windows, starting with one slated for Aug. 29; regardless of the timing, each mission will last approximately 40 days.
The opportunity will kickstart Canada’s participation in the larger NASA Artemis program and NASA-led Gateway space station. Canada’s contribution of Canadarm3 allowed for an astronaut for our country to fly on Artemis 2, which is slated to go around the Moon in 2024. (The individual has not been named yet, but we have four active astronauts at this time.)
Moreover, Canada’s participation will provide boons in robotic technology through MDA’s Canadarm3, which has already generated a commercial sale to Axiom Space for robotics interfaces and technology. Canadarm3 will serve as a repair and maintenance robot on the Gateway space station once it is ready, also allowing Canadians to fly on future missions due to our country contributing robotics to NASA’s program.
This is all very good news indeed – assuming that the mission works out as planned. Boeing’s Space Launch System (SLS) is an unproven rocket; the company is banking on decades of space experience and a reputation for reliability to get SLS into space.
Orion has only been to space once, on a multi-hour mission that stuck close to Earth before coming home. There are also innovative science experiments on board the mission that must work well to assess its capabilities to host humans, including three mannequins (one from NASA and two from the European Space Agency) and a clutch of 10 CubeSats.
Canadians are involved in some of the science, including University of British Columbia pharmaceutical sciences researcher Corey Nislow, who has yeast samples on board Orion to study cosmic rays and microgravity – with implications for cancer and chemotherapy treatments, according to the university. All science, by the way, is under a set of “payload objectives” and as valuable as this work is, any science experiment failures would not be in the same class as missing the main objectives – launch, coming around the Moon and splashdown.
NASA has not talked in detail about the backup plan should Artemis 1 fail immediately after launch or if a selection of mission objectives are not met, but reading between the lines there are some points that might be of consideration if this happens.
If Artemis 1 cannot meet any objective, the first and most obvious solution would be to port the objectives to Artemis 2 and to attempt a new mission, again uncrewed. This solution would push back the Canadian flight until probably at least 2025 (the original timeframe for Artemis 3), along with any accompanying research.
NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) suggests this may be the preferred option, as in a 2021 whitepaper about Artemis management it discusses using Artemis 3 as an orbiting mission if the Human Landing System required to put humans on the Moon – Starship – is not ready in time. (All of these crewed dates cited are approximate, of course, as NASA is still funding development of key items like spacesuits and landers for the later human missions.)
There also is precedence for delaying objectives when looking to the Apollo program, which also sought to land humans on the Moon nearly two generations ago. The main objectives of Apollo 1, to orbit the Earth and to test out the command module and launching system, had to be shifted to Apollo 7 after the first crew died in a catastrophic launch pad fire in 1967, a few weeks before their expected mission date.
Another mission, Apollo 13, failed to land in the Moon’s Fra Mauro highlands in 1970 due to a series of urgent issues with the command module and service module. Engineers redesigned the affected areas and ported the mission objectives to 1971’s Apollo 14, which landed successfully.
The 2024 timeline to a fly a contingency Artemis 2 might be optimistic, though, as OIG’s report also warns that the more recent historical delay in major NASA programs is an average of 3.4 years. OIG’s estimate is based on calculations of delays with NASA’s commercial crew program, commercial cargo program and the Space Launch System. (To be clear, the OIG was talking specifically about Starship when it suggested this historical norm of 3.4 years of delay, but the finding may be ported to Artemis if major objectives are not met.)
Failure does not necessarily mean all mission objectives are unmet. Another scenario is perhaps Orion makes it into space successfully, but perhaps problems with the upper stage engine of SLS strands Orion in the wrong orbit or has it missing the Moon altogether. Those scenarios may also require a refly of Artemis 1, but if Orion manages to make it at least to the Moon NASA may salvage enough objectives to keep flying for Artemis 2 on schedule (at least as far as Artemis 1 objectives are concerned).
This refly option is suggested from an Aug. 4 press briefing with NASA management that included the agency’s Mike Sarafin, the Artemis 1 mission manager. He said the agency is looking to take a “lean-forward approach” in which managers would be “go for failures on Artemis 1 that would normally be no-go for Artemis 2 on a crewed mission, in the interest of crew safety.”
As Artemis 1 is meant to “buy down risk for crewed flights,” he continued, “we’re willing to take more risk on Artemis 1 – on an uncrewed test flight – than we would on later crewed flights.”
The overall implications for Canada’s timelines with Artemis are of course just guesses, as sometimes spaceflight surprises us. Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques flew his 2018-19 International Space Station spaceflight very shortly after an abort in a Soyuz spacecraft that the Russians not only diagnosed quickly, but which allowed for uncrewed reflies within just weeks.
Even SLS has thrown up surprises in terms of the timeline; after numerous issues conducting a fueling test known as a “wet dress” rehearsal – including a hydrogen fuel leak during the 50-hour procedure this summer. NASA authorized the rocket to do its debut flight despite not being able to fulfill all objectives during the wet dress, saying that they knew where the issue arose and would be able to fix it during maintenance at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
So it’s unclear what will happen next with Canada’s participation with Artemis 2, but suffice it to say that all eyes will be on Artemis 1 in the hopes that it meets major objectives. Success will make it easier to keep on timeline and keep funding flowing in for Artemis 2; failure will present uncertainties that will need to be addressed.