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EXPLAINER: NASA tests new moon rocket, 50 years after Apollo

EXPLAINER: NASA tests new moon rocket, 50 years after Apollo
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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – Years behind schedule and billions over budget, NASA’s New Moon rocket will make its debut in a high-profile test flight next week before astronauts take the lead.

The 98-meter-long rocket will attempt to send an empty crew capsule to distant lunar orbit 50 years after NASA’s famous Apollo moonshots.

If all goes well, astronauts could buckle up for a lunar orbit as early as 2024, with NASA aiming to land two humans on the lunar surface by the end of 2025.

The launch is scheduled for Monday morning from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The six-week test flight is risky and could be canceled if anything goes wrong, NASA officials warn.

“We will emphasize and test it. We’re going to make it do things we would never do with a crew, to make it as safe as possible,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The retired founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute said much hinges on this dry run. Increasing costs and long gaps between missions will make for a tough comeback if things go wrong, he noted.

“It is intended to be the first step in a sustained program to explore the Moon, Mars and beyond,” said John Logsdon. “Will the United States have the will to move forward in the face of a major malfunction?”

The price for this single mission: more than 4 billion dollars. Add up everything from the program’s launch a decade ago to a moon landing in 2025, and there’s more sticker shock: $93 billion.

Here is an overview of the first flight of the Artemis program, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister.

ROCKET POWER

The new rocket is shorter and slimmer than the Saturn V rocket that flung 24 Apollo astronauts to the moon half a century ago. But it’s more powerful, packing 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust. It’s called the Space Launch System rocket, or SLS for short, but a less clunky name is under discussion, according to Nelson. Unlike the streamlined Saturn V, the new rocket features a pair of strap-on boosters modeled after NASA’s space shuttles. The boosters detach after two minutes, just like the shuttle boosters, but are not fished out of the Atlantic for reuse. The core stage will continue firing before separating and falling in pieces into the Pacific. Two hours after launch, an upper stage sends the Orion capsule towards the moon.

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MOONSHIP

NASA’s high-tech, automated Orion capsule is named for the constellation, which is among the brightest in the night sky. At 3 meters high, it is more spacious than Apollo’s capsule and can accommodate four astronauts instead of three. For this test flight, a life-size dummy in an orange flight suit will take the commander’s seat, equipped with vibration and acceleration sensors. Two other mannequins made from materials that simulate human tissue – heads and female torsos, but no limbs – will measure cosmic rays, one of the biggest risks of space travel. A torso tests a protective vest from Israel. Unlike the rocket, Orion has launched before and made two orbits around the earth in 2014. This time, the European Space Agency’s service module for propulsion and solar power will be attached over four wings.

FLIGHT SCHEDULE

Orion’s flight is scheduled to take six weeks from launch in Florida to splashdown in the Pacific, twice as long as astronaut trips to stress systems. It will take nearly a week to reach the Moon, 240,000 miles (386,000 kilometers) away. After making a close orbit around the moon, the capsule will enter a distant orbit with a far point of 38,000 miles (61,000 kilometers). This will put Orion 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) from Earth, farther than Apollo. The big test comes at the end of the mission, when Orion hits the atmosphere at 25,000 mph (40,000 km/h) en route to a splashdown in the Pacific. The heat shield uses the same material as the Apollo capsules to withstand re-entry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,750 degrees Celsius). But the advanced design anticipates the quicker and hotter return of future Mars crews.

Hitchhiking

In addition to three test dummies, the flight has a lot of stowaways for space exploration. Ten shoebox-sized satellites will eject as Orion races toward the moon. The problem is that these so-called CubeSats were installed in the rocket a year ago and the batteries of half of them could not be charged because the launch was repeatedly delayed. NASA anticipates that some will fail given the low cost and high risk of these minisatellites. The radiation measuring CubeSats should be fine. Also in plain language: a solar sail demo aimed at an asteroid. In a back-to-the-future salute, Orion will carry some moon rock chips collected by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969 and a bolt from one of their rocket engines, recovered from the sea a decade ago. Aldrin is not participating in the launch, according to NASA, but three of his former colleagues will be there: Apollo 7’s Walter Cunningham, Apollo 10’s Tom Stafford, and Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt, the penultimate man to walk on the moon.

Apollo vs ARTEMIS

More than 50 years later, Apollo is still NASA’s greatest achievement. Using 1960s technology, it took NASA just eight years to go from the launch of its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, to the landing of Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. In contrast, Artemis has already dragged on for more than a decade, although it builds on the short-lived Constellation lunar exploration program. Twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon from 1969 to 1972 and stayed no more than three days at a time. For Artemis, NASA will draw from a diverse astronaut pool of currently 42, extending the time the crews will spend on the moon to at least a week. The goal is to create a long-term lunar presence that will grease the skids for sending humans to Mars. NASA’s Nelson promises to announce the first Artemis lunar crew once Orion is back on Earth.

WHAT’S NEXT

There is still work to be done before astronauts set foot on the moon again. A second test flight will send four astronauts around the moon and back, perhaps as early as 2024. About a year later, NASA plans to send another four to the moon, two of which will land at the moon’s south pole. Orion doesn’t come with its own lunar module like the Apollo spacecraft, so NASA hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to provide their Starship spacecraft for the first Artemis lunar landing. Two other private companies are developing moonwalking suits. The sci-fi looking spacecraft would link up with Orion on the moon, carrying two astronauts to the surface and back to the capsule for the journey home. So far, Starship has only flown ten kilometers. Musk wants to launch Starship around Earth with SpaceX’s Super Heavy Booster before attempting an uncrewed moon landing. One problem: the spacecraft must be refueled at a fuel depot in Earth orbit before it leaves for the moon.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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