Now that NASA's Artemis I mission is finished, here's what's next for the program

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The splashdown of an Orion capsule off the coast of California over the weekend signaled a wildly successful end to NASA's Artemis I moon mission, but teams across the country are still busy preparing hardware – and astronauts – for the program's future launches.

Officials are still reviewing data from the nearly 26-day mission that began with liftoff of the Space Launch System rocket from Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 16, but progress is continuing for Artemis II, III, and beyond. The program's next flight is set to take astronauts to the moon on a similar profile to Artemis I, but it won't touch down on the surface. That's expected before the end of 2024.

Artemis III, meanwhile, is being planned as the key flight that will put two people back on the lunar surface for the first time since the last Apollo mission in 1972. If everything goes according to plan, that could happen as soon as 2025.

Return to Earth:NASA's Artemis I moon mission wraps up with Orion splashdown

Rocket launch schedule:Upcoming Florida launches and landings

Here's where the program stands:

Future Artemis hardware at KSC

At KSC's Operations and Checkout Building, the Orion capsule slated to fly Artemis II and its crew of four astronauts is being assembled and tested by Lockheed Martin technicians, according to KSC spokesperson Antonia Jaramillo. It was powered up for the first time in May.

Artemis II's European Service Module, which provides power and propulsion to Orion, arrived at KSC from Germany last year. Jaramillo said it's nearing integration with the capsule and engineers are working to complete thermal and electrical checklists.

The United Launch Alliance-built second stage for SLS, known as the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, is also being prepped at the company's Cape Canaveral Space Force Station facilities. Once cleared by ULA, it will be transferred to KSC for integration with the SLS rocket as soon as other portions arrive at the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Other hardware elements that complete SLS, like the core stage and side-mounted solid rocket boosters, are still being prepared for shipment to KSC via barge and rail, respectively. NASA centers in Louisiana and Mississippi are involved in prepping those segments.

For Artemis III, meanwhile, the underlying structure of the Orion spacecraft, called the pressure vessel, is also at KSC. Teams completed seal-testing of the vessel earlier this year. More recently, Artemis III's engine section arrived at KSC last week. It sits at the lower end of the SLS rocket and is designed to host four space shuttle-era RS-25 main engines.

Once all parts are at KSC, teams in the Vehicle Assembly Building will stack the rocket and then use the Mobile Launcher to roll it out to pad 39B for testing and, eventually, liftoff.

Updated SLS contracts with Boeing

As Orion approached Earth last week, NASA announced it had finalized its contract with Boeing to produce more core stages for the SLS rocket, which now stands as the most powerful in the world.

Under the SLS Stages Production and Evolution Contract, NASA said, an additional $3.2 billion was awarded to continue manufacturing stages for Artemis III and IV. The contract also includes procurement of materials for Artemis V and VI core stages; provide the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage for those missions; and tooling and engineering support.

"The finalization of this contract extends production activities and preparations for future work through July 2028," the agency said in a release. "As part of the contract, NASA may order up to 10 core stages and eight exploration upper stages total to support future deep space exploration missions."

Before last week's contract announcement, Boeing was already working on the 212-foot core stage for Artemis II. Once complete, it will be transported from NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi to KSC via barge. That operation should occur before the end of next year.

According to the agency's own inspector general, the overall cost of the Artemis program is expected to reach $86 billion through 2025.

But it's not just Boeing – SpaceX and its Starship system is also involved. NASA, operating without a lander capable of carrying astronauts from lunar orbit down to the surface for Artemis III, selected Starship to get the job done. That means development of the company's next-generation vehicle in Starbase, Texas, will need to align closely with NASA's timelines. As it stands, SpaceX hopes to fly Starship on its first orbital flight sometime next year.

If everything goes according to plan for Artemis III, SLS will launch an Orion capsule from KSC with two astronauts on board. They will rendezvous with Starship in lunar orbit, dock, transfer over to the vehicle, then take it down to the surface.

Artemis II crew announcement

After Artemis I's splashdown Sunday, agency officials confirmed the first crew of astronauts that will fly on mission II will likely be announced sometime early next year.

"We knew that we wanted to wait for this mission ... to make sure it was a success," Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, told reporters after splashdown. "There are still some things that need to be learned as we get the spacecraft back to Florida ... if all is still "go" and everything looks good, then our plan is to name the crew in early 2023."

"People are anxious, we know that, so that is our game plan," Wyche said.

Artemis II, an eight-to-10-day mission, will include a crew of four astronauts that will fly around the moon before returning to Earth for splashdown. Three are slated to be NASA astronauts while the fourth will come from the Canadian Space Agency.

If successful, it will pave the way for two others – the first woman and first person of color – to walk on the lunar surface since 1972's Apollo 17. That Artemis III flight is expected sometime before 2030.

For the latest, visit floridatoday.com/launchschedule.

NASA's Artemis I Orion capsule is seen off the coast of Baja, California, after splashing down at the end of its 26-day mission to the moon on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022.
NASA's Artemis I Orion capsule is seen off the coast of Baja, California, after splashing down at the end of its 26-day mission to the moon on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022.

Contact Emre Kelly at aekelly@floridatoday.com or 321-242-3715. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @EmreKelly.

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Now that NASA's Artemis I mission is finished, here's what's next