CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – Years late and billions over budget, NASA’s new moon rocket will make its debut next week in a high-stakes test flight before astronauts get to the top.
The 98-meter rocket will attempt to send an empty crew pod into distant orbit around the moon, 50 years after NASA’s famous Apollo moon shots.
If all goes well, astronauts could strap in for a lap around the moon as early as 2024, with NASA aiming to land two people 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 cut short if something goes wrong, NASA officials warn.
“We are going to emphasize and test it. We’re going to make it do things that we would never do with a crew on it, to make it as safe as possible,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
The retired founder of the space policy institute at George Washington University said there is a lot of driving on this trial run. Spiraling costs and long interruptions between missions will make for a tough comeback if things go wrong, he noted.
“It is believed to be the first step in a sustainable program of human exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond,” said John Logsdon. “Will the United States have the will to carry on in the event of a major outage?”
The price tag for this single mission: over $4 billion. Add it all up from the program’s inception ten years ago to a moon landing in 2025, and there’s even more sticker shock: $93 billion.
Here’s an overview of the first flight of the Artemis program, named after the mythological twin sister of Apollo.
The new rocket is shorter and slimmer than the Saturn V rockets that launched 24 Apollo astronauts to the moon half a century ago. But it’s mightier, with 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust. It’s called the Space Launch System rocket, or SLS for short, but a less awkward name is up for debate, according to Nelson. Unlike the streamlined Saturn V, the new rocket has a pair of strap-on boosters made from NASA’s space shuttles. The boosters will release after two minutes, just like the shuttle boosters, but will not be fished out of the Atlantic for reuse. The nuclear trap will continue to fire before it disintegrates and crashes into pieces in the Pacific Ocean. Two hours after launch, an upper stage will send the capsule, Orion, to the moon.
NASA’s high-tech, automated Orion capsule is named after the constellation, one of the brightest stars in the night sky. At 11 feet (3 meters) tall, it is more spacious than Apollo’s capsule and can accommodate four astronauts instead of three. For this test flight, a full-size dummy in an orange flight suit will occupy the commander’s seat, rigged with vibration and acceleration sensors. Two other mannequins made of material that mimics human tissue — heads and female torsos, but no limbs — will measure cosmic rays, one of the biggest risks of spaceflight. A torso tests a protective vest from Israel. Unlike the rocket, Orion was launched earlier and made two orbits around the Earth in 2014. This time, the European Space Agency’s service module is attached via four wings for propulsion and solar power.
Orion’s flight would take six weeks from launch in Florida to landing in the Pacific, twice as long as astronaut travels to load the systems. It will take nearly a week to reach the moon, 240,000 miles (386,000 kilometers) away. After slamming close to the moon, the capsule will enter a distant orbit with a distant point of 38,000 miles (61,000 kilometers). That will place 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 kph) en route to landing in the Pacific Ocean. The heat shield uses the same material as the Apollo capsules and can withstand return temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,750 degrees Celsius). But the advanced design anticipates the faster, hotter return of future Mars crews.
In addition to three test dummies, the flight has a slew of stowaways for deep space exploration. Ten shoebox-sized satellites will explode 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 for half of them couldn’t be charged because the launch kept getting delayed. NASA expects some to fail, given the cheap, risky nature of these mini-satellites. The radiation-sensing CubeSats should be OK. Also clear: a demo of solar sails aimed at an asteroid. In a back-to-the-future salute, Orion will carry a few slivers of moon rocks collected in 1969 by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and a bolt from one of their rocket engines, salvaged from the sea a decade ago. Aldrin will not be attending 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 USA. ARTEMIS
More than 50 years later, Apollo is still NASA’s greatest achievement. Using technology from the 1960s, it took NASA just eight years to launch its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, and land Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. In contrast, Artemis has been dragging on for more than a decade, despite building on the short-lived moon exploration program Constellation. Twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon from 1969 to 1972, staying no more than three days in a row. For Artemis, NASA will draw on a diverse astronaut pool that is currently 42 and extends the time crews will spend on the moon to at least a week. The goal is to create a long-lasting lunar presence that will lubricate the skids to send humans to Mars. NASA’s Nelson, promises to announce the first Artemis moon crews once Orion is back on Earth.
Much more needs to be done before astronauts get back on the moon. A second test flight will send four astronauts around the moon and back, perhaps as early as 2024. A year or so later, NASA plans to send four more up, two of which will land at the moon’s south pole. Orion isn’t coming with its own lunar lander like the Apollo spacecraft did, so NASA hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to deliver its Starship spacecraft for the first Artemis moon landing. Two other private companies are developing moonwalking suits. The sci-fi looking Starship would link up with Orion on the moon and take a few astronauts to the surface and back to the capsule for the ride home. So far, Starship has only climbed 10 kilometers. Musk plans to launch Starship around Earth on SpaceX’s Super Heavy Booster before attempting a crew-less moon landing. One hiccup: The spaceship needs to be refilled in a fuel depot orbiting Earth before it goes to the moon.
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