CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — It’s time for NASA’s new moon rocket.
With 8.8 million pounds of thrust, the rocket – dubbed the space launch system (SLS) – was designed to be more powerful than the powerful at NASA Saturn v. Its Orion space capsule outperforms its Apollo ancestor by a third. But none of the spaceships passed the ultimate test: a journey to the moon and back.
That will change on Monday (August 29) when NASA intends to launch the SLS megarocket and Orion on it Artemis 1a test flight serving as a vanguard of the agency’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon by 2025. Launch is scheduled for 8:33 am EDT (1233 GMT) from Pad 39B here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. You can follow the launch live on the internet Monday from 6:30 am EDT (1030 GMT).
“Our zero hour is approaching for the Artemis generation,” Mike Sarafin, NASA mission manager for Artemis 1, told reporters here on Saturday. “We have an increased anticipation.”
This expectation is not something that NASA alone owns. See 200,000 spectators are expected (opens in new tab) to flood Florida’s Space Coast here to catch a glimpse of NASA’s first moon rocket to fly in over 50 years. Their hopes mirror NASA’s for a successful mission, where success is far from certain.
“This is a very risky mission,” said Jim Free, NASA associate director for exploration systems development. “We have a lot of things that could go wrong during the mission in places where we might have to come home early or cancel to get home.”
In fact, the mission may not start at all.
“Our possible outcomes on Monday are we can go inside the window or scrub for a number of reasons,” Sarafin said. “We will not promise that we will get out on Monday.”
NASA has a two-hour window in which to attempt to launch Artemis 1 on Monday, which ends at 10:33 a.m. EDT (1433 GMT). At the start of the window there is an 80% chance of good weather, although later in the day the chance drops to 60% due to the possibility of rain. NASA has backup launch days on 2/9 and 5/9, possibly
On Saturday, NASA discovered five lightning strikes on Pad 39Bbut none of the strikes affected the SLS rocket itself. They all hit the pad’s lightning protection system, a network of towers and overhead wires, and weren’t powerful enough to fear launch, said Jeff Spaulding, NASA Artemis 1 senior test director , in an update on Sunday.
A long way to the launch pad
NASA has been trying to build a giant new rocket for nearly two decades. In 2004, the agency announced plans for a massive rocket, then known as the Ares vas part of its Constellation program to return to the moon by 2020. That program was eventually canceled and replaced with what has become Artemis programalthough the Orion spaceship survived the transition. The five-section solid rocket boosters (slightly larger than those used in NASA’s shuttle program) were originally part of Constellation Ares 1 rocket to launch Orion also found new life in the SLS.
“We overcame our challenges, just like every other part of this whole rocket,” Bruce Tiller, NASA manager for the SLS boosters, said in an interview with Space.com. “Everyone had their challenges that they have mastered over the years. And now I think we’re as ready as we can be. And it’s just really exciting.”
Congress directed NASA to build the Space Launch System over a decade ago, urging the agency to use legacy Shuttle hardware such as solid rocket boosters and RS-25 core engines needed to build a new vehicle for space exploration. The first test flight was planned for 2017. It’s way behind schedule.
“I would just say that space is difficult,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who served as a Florida senator in the Senate when SLS was approved, said Saturday of what the agency has learned over time. “They develop new systems, and that costs money and time.”
Simple but aggressive targets
OUR has “very easy but aggressive” targets for Artemis 1, Free said.
First, the mission must test Orion’s heat shield to ensure it can survive re-entry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,800 degrees Celsius) as it returns from the Moon at 40,000 km/h. NASA also wants to make sure SLS takes Orion into its lunar orbit to see how the spacecraft, which has a service module built and provided by Airbus, will do so European Space Agencyoccurs in space.
The space agency also wants to recover the capsule after it lands in the Pacific Ocean to see how it fared overall. It carries over 1,000 sensors to record every aspect of the flight, NASA said.
At its furthest point from EarthOrion will be 290,000 miles from our planet and 40,000 miles beyond the Moon – the furthest distance a manned capsule has ever visited (breaking a record set by the Apollo 13 crew 1970). Its 42-day mission is much longer than the 10 days of a manned flight, NASA said.
Despite its length, the mission is expected to complete only one and a half orbits of the moon while circling Earth in a long, winding orbit in the opposite direction of the moon’s orbit. This “distant retrograde orbit” will bring Orion to within about 60 miles (97 km) and out as far as 40,000 miles, mission managers said.
Inside Orion is a space suit Mannequin “Moonika”. and humanoid torsos covered in sensors to measure the radiation environment Artemis astronauts must endure. And perhaps the most important test: re-entry when Orion hits earth atmosphereskip a short distance and then plunge back down for what NASA calls a “skip reentry.”
“We’re pushing the vehicle to the limit and really pushing it to prepare for the crew,” said Sarafin.
There are also some scientific goals. That Artemis 1 Mission includes 10 Small CubeSats to test technologies for space exploration. One named NEA scoutwill leave the moon with a solar sail in search of a small asteroid, while the others are to support Artemis projects near the moon.
“Some of them are testing technologies for deep space navigation. We even have one that’s going further out and hitting an asteroid,” said Jacob Bleacher, senior exploration scientist at NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate. “But some of them will focus more on the moon to take measurements of the movement and actually map where some of the water deposits might be.”
Astronauts back to the moon
If all goes well with Artemis 1, NASA will move on Artemis 2a manned flight that will send four astronauts on a flyby mission around the moon in 2024. The time delay between missions is partly to see how Orion behaves, and also to allow NASA to use some of Artemis 1’s avionics and other components on the manned flight.
And if that Artemis 2 mission is successful, NASA hopes to follow it with its first manned moon landing of the 21st century Artemis 3 in 2025. That moon landing that would send two astronauts — including the first woman on the moon – to the South Pole of the Moon, depends on factors beyond SLS and Orion.
NASA needs new space suits and a giant lander to complete the Artemis 3 mission. SpaceX builds massive spaceship Lunar landers for NASA while other companies develop Artemis space suits. If any of the components are delayed, this will affect the agency’s plans.
“If our suits aren’t ready, we won’t land on the moon and the opposite is the same if our suits are ready and Starship isn’t,” Free said.
However, NASA emphasizes that it is committed to returning to the moon in a sustainable way that doesn’t just consist of footprints, flags and photos. The agency has already built hardware for Artemis 2 and future SLS boosters, with plans to at least Artemis 9.
NASA has awarded contracts to build components of a new one Gateway space station around the moon to serve as a base for lunar landings. And the ubiquitous goal is Marswhich NASA is targeting for a manned landing sometime in the late 2030s, according to Nelson.
“There’s a huge universe out there to explore,” Nelson said. “This is the next step in this exploration and this time we are going with our international partners.”