CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Nov. 15 (Reuters) – Ground teams at the Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday prepared for a third attempt to launch NASA’s next-generation towering lunar rocket, the debut flight of the U.S. space agency’s Artemis lunar program, 50 years after Apollo’s last lunar mission.
The 32-story Space Launch System (SLS) rocket was scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 1:04 a.m. EST (0604 GMT) on Wednesday to send its Orion capsule on a 25-day journey around the moon. back without astronauts on board.
Flight-ready NASA crews were thrilled with success after 10 weeks beset by technical problems, two hurricanes, and two trips from the spacecraft hangar to the launch pad.
Two previous launch attempts, on August 29 and September 3, were aborted due to leaking fuel lines and other technical issues that NASA has since resolved. While docked at its launch pad last week, the rocket endured fierce winds and rain from Hurricane Nicole, delaying its flight for two days.
Inspections after the storm showed that the hurricane tore off a strip of ultra-thin protective sealant from Orion’s exterior, but NASA officials said Monday night that the damage was minor and posed a negligible risk to the launch.
Weather is always a factor beyond NASA’s control. According to Monday’s latest forecast, there was a 90% chance of favorable conditions during Wednesday’s two-hour launch window, according to the US Space Force at Cape Canaveral.
The mission, dubbed Artemis I, marks the first flight of the SLS rocket and Orion capsule together, built under NASA contracts with Boeing Co (BA.N) and Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N), respectively.
It also signals a major change of direction for NASA’s post-Apollo human spaceflight program, after decades of focusing on low-Earth orbit with space shuttles and the International Space Station. (Image: https://tmsnrt.rs/3PPRsbN)
SUCCESSFUL TO APOLLO
Named for the Greek goddess of the hunt – and Apollo’s twin sister – Artemis aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface as early as 2025.
Twelve astronauts walked on the moon during six Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972, the only spaceflights to date to place humans on the lunar surface. But Apollo, born of the US-Soviet space race during the Cold War, was less science-driven than Artemis.
The new moon program has enlisted commercial partners such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the space agencies of Europe, Canada and Japan to eventually establish a long-term base on the moon as a springboard to even more ambitious human journeys to Mars.
Getting the SLS-Orion spacecraft off the ground is an important first step. The maiden voyage is intended to put the 5.75-million-pound vehicle to the test in a rigorous test flight, pushing design boundaries to prove the spacecraft is fit to pilot astronauts.
If the mission succeeds, a crewed Artemis II flight around the moon and back could come as early as 2024, followed within a few years by the program’s first lunar landing of astronauts, one of them a woman, with Artemis III.
Billed as the world’s most powerful, complex rocket, the SLS represents the largest new vertical launch system the U.S. space agency has built since the Saturn V of the Apollo era.
Last minute issues aside, the launch countdown should end with the rocket’s four main R-25 engines and twin solid-rocket boosters igniting to produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust, propelling the spacecraft to the sky shoots.
About 90 minutes after launch, the rocket’s upper stage will propel Orion out of orbit on course for a 25-day flight that will take it as close as 60 miles to the lunar surface before flying 40,000 miles (64,374 km) beyond the moon. sail and back to Earth. The capsule is expected to crash into the Pacific Ocean on December 11.
While there will be no humans on board, Orion will have a simulated crew of three — one male and two female mannequins — equipped with sensors to measure radiation levels and other stresses that real astronauts would experience.
A primary goal of the mission is to test the durability of Orion’s heat shield during reentry as it hits Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles (39,429 km) per hour, or 32 times the speed of sound, on its return from Earth. an orbit around the moon. faster than the re-entry of capsules returning from the space station.
The heat shield is designed to withstand reentry friction that is expected to raise the temperature outside the capsule to nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius).
More than a decade in development with years of delays and budget overruns, the SLS-Orion spacecraft has cost NASA a minimum of $37 billion to date, including design, construction, testing and ground facilities. NASA’s Office of Inspector General has predicted that the total cost of Artemis will reach $93 billion by 2025.
NASA defends the program as a boon to space exploration that has created tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in commerce.
Reporting by Joey Roulette in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Edited by Lisa Shumaker and Gerry Doyle
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