The next trip to the moon isn't supposed to happen until 2024, but NASA is now ready to put living humans on the surface.
On July 20, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, NASA confirmed that work on the Orion crew vehicle is complete. The reusable capsule, designed to carry four to six astronauts, is meant to offer a "sustainable" option for carrying humans to other worlds, including the moon and, later, Mars.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine called the new development "an opportunity to take a giant leap forward for all of humanity." The Orion capsule is supposed to carry humans to the moon in 2024 as part of the larger Artemis program.
Orion's first trip to space is planned for 2020/2021, and it's to be an uncrewed test flight in which the module will spend 10 days in orbit around the moon before returning to Earth. The Artemis 2 mission is expected to follow in 2022, this time bringing live astronauts out into space for a moon flyby.
The 2024 mission will include an actual, crewed landing, with the module first visiting to to-be-built Lunar Orbital Platform - Gateway, a space station that's meant to remain in lunar orbit and serve as a staging ground for communications, scientific research, habitation, and exploration. NASA hopes that by 2028, humans will have a sustainable presence on the surface of the moon.
Also completed is Orion's European Service Module, which will power the capsule and propel it through space. The ESM is a contribution of the European Space Agency.
With the announcement of Orion's completion, all eyes are on the upcoming moon missions. But the capsule has a bigger future than that. Not only is it meant to eventually carry astronauts to Mars, it's also, according to NASA, the "backbone for [our] deep space exploration" in general.