NASA Administrator and former Florida senator Bill Nelson spoke at Kennedy Space Center, along with the four-astronaut Artemis II crew, and other NASA officials.
The agency is gearing up to send the crew on a 10-day journey around the moon to test the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion spacecraft’s life-support systems. If all goes well, NASA plans to land the Orion spacecraft on the moon’s south pole.
“We’re going back to learn to live in a deep space environment for long periods of time, so we can go Mars and return safely,” NASA Secretary Bill Nelson said.
Nelson said the mission promises the development of “several scientific excitements,” like new tools and technological implements, as part of the “moon to Mars program.”
“There are discoveries in overcoming this very hard environment that are going to fulfill us and our nature as discoverers and as adventurers,” Nelson said. “So that’s why we’re going back to the moon, and then on to Mars.”
Before Tuesday’s news conference, the Artemis II crew stopped by Kennedy Space Center to check out their ride to the moon, the Orion spacecraft.
“It makes it real,” NASA Associate Administrator Bob Cabana said. “They know they have a mission.”
NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman said the four astronauts were getting “fired up” for the mission after getting their first look at Orion.
“To the four of us sitting here, the measure of success for Artemis II is seeing our colleagues on the lunar surface, seeing our colleagues assembling the Gateway, and then seeing people that are following in our footsteps, walking on Mars and coming back to planet Earth,” Wiseman said.
Nelson acknowledged the new “space race” with China, as Russian and Indian space programs are also working to be the first to land their crews on the south pole.
“I don’t want China to get to the south pole first, with humans, and then say, ‘This is ours, stay out,’ like they’ve done with the Spratly Islands,” Nelson said.
Nelson said he wished Russia well on their recent launch of a probe to the moon, but cast doubt on the idea their cosmonauts were ready to set foot there.
“I think the space race is really between us and China,” Nelson said. “And we need to protect the interest of the international community for exactly the reasons I’ve laid out.”
The Artemis II mission is tentatively scheduled to launch in late 2024. NASA technicians have been hard at work repairing the Orion spacecraft after Artemis I, but repairs and new additions over the next year could end up delaying the launch.
Flights up to Artemis VI are currently in the works, according to NASA.