NASA wants to send humans back to the moon. But first, it needs a little practice.

Later this month, the launch window will open for the Artemis I mission — the first step in a larger, $93 billion program of the same name. It hopes to land people on the lunar surface by 2025.

This first mission won’t have a crew. But it will have a giant rocket called the Space Launch System. It’s taller than the Statue of Liberty and can carry a payload of 59,000 pounds to the moon. That’s equivalent to six to nine African elephants.

Artemis I will spend four to six weeks carrying the Orion spacecraft — the capsule that will eventually carry astronauts — farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown. Mannequins will sit in place of space crusaders during the upcoming test voyage.

Mike Sarafin is the mission manager for Artemis but got his start on a farm in the upstate New York town of Herkimer. He and WNYC host Tiffany Hanssen discussed what to expect from the mission.

If I have this right, our last manned or crewed mission to the moon was in 1972, but we have had unmanned or uncrewed landings since then. Is that right?

That is absolutely, right. Since then, we have performed a number of science missions within NASA and then other nations have sent probes there as well.

So Artemis falls into this unmanned category then, right? Obviously?

This initial test flight does. The very next mission, Artemis II, and then every Artemis mission after that, we intend to send astronauts out. Right now, we are in the planning stages for those crewed missions — in addition to the upcoming uncrewed test flight, which we're looking to launch here shortly.

So if it doesn't have people on board, what does it have on board?

This mission will be a full-up test of the Space Launch System rocket, which, when it flies, will be the most powerful rocket in the world — 15% more powerful than the Saturn V that we used during the Apollo program. It will also have the Orion spacecraft, which is a human-capable spacecraft.

We will have some mannequins that will serve as human analogs. There will be three of them on board to help us understand what astronauts will experience on the very next mission.

It'll be monitoring the dynamic loads and environments in the cockpit, during the launch and landing phases, as well as gathering radiation baseline data as we head out through the Earth's magnetic field, through the Van Allen radiation belts and into the deep space environment.

I can imagine some folks saying, "Look, we've sent people there already. Don't we already know what's gonna happen to people when we send them up there? Why do we need to have these mannequins go ahead and do this all again?"

We actually know very little about the deep space environment.

We have been flying to low-Earth orbit, consistently onboard the International Space Station — it's been for 20 years consecutively. So we've got quite a bit of data, but all of that is within the Earth's magnetic field, where you're shielded from deep space radiation and deep space particles for the most part.

We have some data from Apollo, but not a whole lot. And certainly, our technology and our ability to measure and model this stuff has improved dramatically in the over 50 years since we flew the Apollo program. So there are just a whole host of things that we can benefit from in today's era.

A full Moon is in view from Launch Complex 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 14, 2022.

A full Moon is in view from Launch Complex 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 14, 2022.

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A full Moon is in view from Launch Complex 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 14, 2022.
NASA

We're gonna use that, not only to be smarter about the environment and the risks that our astronauts are gonna be taking, but we're actually gonna be exploring different regions of the moon eventually, starting with Artemis. We're gonna go to the polar regions, specifically the lunar south pole, which has never been explored by humans before.

So, we are looking at the moon from a holistic standpoint rather than just a singular goal, which was to put a human on the moon by the end of the decade. We're looking to go back sustainably, and then we're gonna leverage that information and leverage today's technology to go sustainably rather than just for a singular goal.

So where will you be on launch day for Artemis I?

On launch day, I'll be in the launch control center in the mission management team area. I'll be chairing the mission management team, and I'll give the thumbs up to our operations teams when all of the elements are ready to go.

That's when I'll give the "go" to launch and hand that over to our launch director, and then they'll conduct the launch countdown operation.

Wow. Fascinating. Really, Mike, thanks so much for spending the time with us. We really appreciate all of your work on this.

Yeah, you're welcome. It's a real honor to be something that's larger than yourself and to represent the nation as well as the agency. So thank you for having us.