Fly me to the Moon: NASA's Orion spacecraft prepares for mission, Israelis aboard

The spacecraft's assembly is almost complete, needing only to be integrated with NASA's Space Launch System.

Artist's rendition of NASA's Orion spacecraft, set to take part in the Artemis I mission. (photo credit: NASA/FLICKR)
Artist's rendition of NASA's Orion spacecraft, set to take part in the Artemis I mission.
(photo credit: NASA/FLICKR)

NASA's Orion spacecraft is getting ready to launch on the Artemis I mission to the Moon, featuring Israeli, German and American non-human passengers.

Footage was shared by NASA over Twitter of the spacecraft being moved to the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. Its assembly is almost complete, needing only to be integrated with NASA's Space Launch System.

The widely anticipated Artemis I mission is set to launch in January 2022, marking NASA's return to planned lunar missions, which itself is marked by symbolically naming the missions Artemis, the mythological twin of Apollo, for whom the previous lunar missions were named.

No humans will be on board the Orion when it launches, but rather three non-human mannequins. The first, a full human stand-in named Commander Moonikin Campos following an online poll, will make sure the spacecraft itself is safe for humans.

 A mockup of NASA's Orion spacecraft. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) A mockup of NASA's Orion spacecraft. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The other two are female-bodied model human torsos known as phantoms. Named Zohar and Helga by NASA's partners in the mission, the Israel Space Agency (ISA) and German Aerospace Center (DLR) respectively, their job is to take part in the Matroshka AstroRad Radiation Experiment (MARE), which will provide data on radiation levels in lunar missions as well as testing the usability of the AstroRad vests.

The vests, made by Tel Aviv-based company StemRad in partnership with aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin, were designed as personal protective equipment to shield astronauts from space radiation exposure outside the Earth's magnetosphere.

Having been made in partnership between an American and Israeli company, the vest proudly displays the flags of both countries.

The vests have already been sent to the International Space Station for the Comfort and Human factors AstroRad Radiation Garment Evaluation (CHARGE) study meant to test the vest in a microgravity environment. This study will help improve the vest's fit and function.

Both tests are being conducted by NASA in partnership with the Israel Space Agency (ISA) and could see the AstoRad become a critical component for NASA's future space exploration plans.

Israel is also advancing its own planned lunar mission, however. This mission, dubbed Beresheet 2, will be a follow-up to the 2019 one which saw the Jewish state attempt to become the fourth country to attempt a Moon landing.

Israeli scientists inspect Beresheet in Yehud  (credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)Israeli scientists inspect Beresheet in Yehud (credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)

It was almost a success, but the mission control lost contact with the lander just minutes before landing, causing it to crash. Nonetheless, the lander did make it to the lunar surface, making Israel the fourth country to accomplish this, and making the firm behind the lander, SpaceIL, the first private entity to do so. 

Undeterred, the Beresheet 2 mission was announced days later. Now, Israel hopes to partner with one of its new regional allies, the UAE, to advance this mission forward.

“It would be wonderful if we could develop a space program that would be a combination of Israel and the Arab world,” SpaceIL’s chairman Morris Kahn told the Global Investment Forum in Dubai on Wednesday.

“I would welcome it – if it fits in with the program the Emirates have. They have an ambitious program,” Kahn, a respected philanthropist, said at the conference jointly organized by The Jerusalem Post and the Khaleej Times – adding that such a joint initiative would be the “pinnacle of my achievement and my involvement in space.”

Both the UAE and Israel have among the most advanced space programs in the Middle East. Abu Dhabi’s “New Hope” probe reached Mars’ orbit in February of this year while Israel’s original Beresheet mission entered the moon’s orbit in 2019. The UAE’s $10 billion investment pledge in Israel last March earmarked funds for space projects.

The advancing of lunar missions also comes following new discoveries made about Earth's only celestial satellite. 

Recent findings regarding Moon rocks brought back to the planet by China – the first rocks brought back in four decades – showed evidence of volcanic activity on the Moon, according to a study published in the academic periodical Science

Prior missions by the US and USSR that recovered rocks did note that there was volcanic activity there, but could not find evidence of anything happening more recently than 2.8 billion years ago. These new findings present evidence of this happening less than 1 billion years ago, filling a major gap in our understanding of lunar geology.

Further missions to the Moon could help close that gap even further.