NASA is going to wait for a minimum of 2 years after placing astronauts on the moon for the very first time in over a half-century in the mid-2020s as portion of the Artemis mission prior to making the second crewed lunar landing. The Artemis 4 mission, the very first following the Artemis 3 mission places astronauts on the moon, are not going to try a landing, according to NASA officials speaking during a 2-day session of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee on January 18 and 19.

Instead, Artemis 4 is going to be used to complete the lunar Gateway’s construction. The I-Hab habitat module, designed by the Japanese space agency and the European Space Agency JAXA, will be delivered to the Gateway by the mission. It is going to be docked with Power and Propulsion Element, as well as the Habitation and Logistics Outpost, that will deploy together on the Falcon Heavy in the late 2024 and spend one year spiraling out to a close-rectilinear halo orbit in the vicinity of the moon.

The Space Launch System’s Block 1B variant, which does replace the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage utilized on the first 3 SLS deployments with the more capable Exploration Upper Stage, is going to also be launched on Artemis 4. This allows Artemis missions to carry “co-manifested” payloads like the I-Hab module alongside the Orion spacecraft.

Even without a lunar landing, this will be a significant difficulty for the expedition. During a session at the meeting on January 19, Mark Kirasich, who is serving as the deputy associate administrator as well as head of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division, said, “When you balance the performance restrictions against the deployment opportunities and have everything to line up, we find that we’re awfully challenged.”

The I-Hab’s mass is one difficulty with the mission. Co-manifested payloads on SLS Block 1B possess a maximum mass of about 10 metric tons, according to Kirasich, and he claims I-Hab is striving to stay under that limit. “Day in and day out, Dan Hartman, NASA’s Gateway program manager, is working with ESA to get their mass to match the limit,” he stated.

The lack of a lunar lander is another reason for skipping a landing on the Artemis 4. Last year, NASA awarded SpaceX the HLS (Human Landing System) Option A contract, which only covers the construction of a lander as well as a single crewed voyage on Artemis 3. Future landings will be acquired via a separate effort known as LETS (Lunar Exploration Transportation Services). The purpose of LETS is to identify one or more companies that will provide “sustainable” landing services.

Because of the timing of LETS — a preliminary request for proposals (RfP) is set to be released this spring — the first landing service obtained through the program will be ready in a couple of years. “We’ll have this sustainable lander in around 2 years from the Option A award to the LETS award,” Kirasich added. “It’s a different lander than Option A, with more demanding criteria.”

Artemis 5 would be the first Artemis flight to use the Gateway as well as land on the lunar. The mission will also transport ESA’s ESPRIT communications and refueling module, as well as a robotic arm system built in Canada for the Gateway and an unpressurized lunar rover, as per a “working manifest” chart given at the meeting.

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