Countdown clocks started ticking Saturday for the first launch of NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket Monday on ato send an unmanned Orion crew pod around the moon and back.
Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, NASA’s first female launch director, called her team to their stations in Kennedy Space Center’s Firing Room 1 and began a careful countdown of 46 hours and 10 minutes at 10:23 a.m. EDT.
“At the moment we are not working on significant issues,” she told reporters at a pre-flight press conference. “So I’m happy to report that and everything is going according to plan.”
Shortly after the briefing, lightning struck two of the three 600-meter-tall protective towers surrounding the SLS missile on launch pad 39B. The strike prompted a review of the data to ensure no sensitive electrical systems were affected, but initial audits indicated the strikes were “minor magnitude”.
If all goes well, remote-controlled engineers plan to pump 750,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel into the core stage of the giant SLS rocket at 12:18 a.m. EDT Monday, setting the stage for the 8:33 a.m. detonation. , the opening of a two-hour window. Forecasters predict a 70 percent chance of good weather.
The unmanned 42-day test flight of the $4.1 billion SLS rocket and Orion crew pod is a major milestone in NASA’s drive to return astronauts to the moon’s surface for extended exploration and to upgrade equipment and procedures. necessary for any multi-year flights to Mars.
“With the launch of Artemis 1 on Monday, NASA is at a historic turning point, poised to begin the most important series of scientific and human exploration missions in more than a generation,” said Bhavya Lal, NASA associate administrator for technology, policy and strategy.
“We are ensuring that the architecture of the human exploration agency is based on a long-term strategic vision, that of continued U.S. presence on the Moon, Mars and throughout the Solar System.”
But mission manager Mike Sarafin warned: “This is a test flight. We are aware that this is a targeted stress test of the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rocket. It’s a new creation, it’s a new rocket and a new one.” spacecraft to send people to the moon on the next flight.
“This is something that has not been done in over 50 years and it is incredibly difficult. We will learn a lot from the Artemis 1 test flight … We understand that there is a lot of excitement about this, but the team is very focused.”
One question mark in the countdown is the status of a 4-inch liquid hydrogen quick coupler that leaked during a countdown and refueling test on June 20.
The fitting was repaired after the rocket was returned to NASA’s assembly building. But hydrogen leaks don’t usually show up unless the equipment is exposed to cryogenic temperatures — in this case, minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit — and that won’t happen until refueling begins Monday morning.
If a leak is detected that violates safety standards, the launch is scrubbed. But Blackwell-Thompson said she is confident the fitting will work normally.
“You don’t get the full test until you do it under cryogenic conditions,” she said in an interview. “So we believe that we have done everything we can to resolve this issue, and certainly on launch day, as part of our loading, we will know for sure.”
The primary goals of the Artemis 1 mission are to verify the performance of the giant SLS missile, put the Orion crew pod to the test, and return it safely to Earth, to ensure that the 16.5 The capsule’s foot-wide heat shield can protect returning astronauts from the rapid heat of reentry.
An instrumented space-capable mannequin, “Moonikin Campos,” and two artificial female torsos will help scientists measure the radiation environment of deep space, along with the vibrations, noise levels, accelerations, temperatures and pressures in the crew cabin during the mission.
If the flight goes well, NASA will move forward with plans to launch four real-life astronauts on a looped free-return orbit around the moon by the end of 2024, followed by a mission to land two astronauts at the moon’s south pole as early as 2025.
That flight will depend in large part on continued funding from Congress, the development of new spacesuits for the moonwalkers, and SpaceX’s progress in developing a lunar lander based on the design of its futuristic Starship rocket, which is yet to be launched. flew into space.
NASA executives say they are optimistic, but it is not yet known how realistic the landing target for 2025 could be.
“We’re working like we do. We have to, otherwise it becomes an open question that we’ll never get to,” said astronaut Randy Bresnik, adding that SpaceX is “working toward that pace, too.”
“And that gives great hope that if we want to get there, we have the right partner for this first mission,” Bresnik said. “The suits and the spaceship, the lunar lander, all go hand in hand. We can’t live without each other. So we’ll get more clarity in the coming months.”