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) — is designed to be more powerful than NASA’s mighty Saturn V. The Orion space capsule is a third larger than its Apollo ancestor. Yet neither spacecraft has passed the ultimate test: a trip to the moon and back.
That will change Monday (Aug. 29), when NASA plans to launch the SLS mega rocket and Orion on Artemis 1, a test flight that serves as the vanguard of the agency’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon by 2025. Launch is set for 8:33 a.m. EDT (1233 GMT) from Pad 39B here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. You can watch the launch live online Monday from 6:30 am EDT (1030 GMT).
“Our zero-hour approaches for the Artemis generation,” Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission manager, told reporters on Saturday. “We have a heightened sense of anticipation.”
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That anticipation is not something that NASA alone possesses. Upwards
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 more than 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’s associate director for exploration systems development. “We have a lot of things that can go wrong during the mission in places where we might get home sooner, or where we might have to abort to get home.”
In fact, the mission cannot start at all.
“Our possible results on Monday are we can go inside the window, or we can scrub for a number of reasons,” Sarafin said. “We are not going to promise that we will leave on Monday.”
NASA has a two-hour window to attempt to launch Artemis 1 on Monday, which closes at 10:33 a.m. EDT (1433 GMT). There is an 80% chance of good weather at the start of the window, but that drops to 60% later in the day due to the chance of rain. NASA has backup launch days on September 2 and 5 if needed.
On Saturday, NASA detected five lightning strikes on Pad 39B, but 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 strong enough to be a concern at launch, NASA Artemis 1 senior test director Jeff Spaulding said in an update on Sunday.
Video: Lightning strikes Artemis 1 launch pad days before launch 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 called the Ares V, as part of its Constellation program to return to the moon by 2020. That program was eventually canceled and replaced by what has become the Artemis program, although the Orion spacecraft has survived the transition. The five-segment solid rocket boosters (a little larger than those used on NASA’s shuttle program), originally part of Constellation’s Ares 1 rocket to launch Orion, also found new life in the SLS.
“We’ve been through our challenges, just like every other part of this entire rocket,” Bruce Tiller, NASA’s manager for the SLS boosters, told Space.com in an interview. “Everyone’s had their challenges that they’ve overcome in those years. And now I think we’re as ready to go as we can be. And it’s just really exciting.”
Congress instructed NASA to build the Space Launch System more than a decade ago, urging the agency to use shuttle hardware such as the solid rocket boosters and RS-25 nuclear engines derived to launch a new vehicle. build for deep space exploration. The first test flight at the time was targeted for 2017. It is well behind schedule.
“I’d just say space is difficult,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson, who was in the Senate as a senator in Florida when SLS was approved, said Saturday about what the agency has learned over time. “You develop new systems, and it costs money and it takes time.”
Simple, but aggressive goals
A diagram of NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar mission stages during its 42-day flight. (Image credit: NASA)
NASA has “very simple, but aggressive” goals for Artemis 1, Free said.
First, the mission must test Orion’s heat shield to make sure it can survive the 5,000-degree Fahrenheit (2,800 degrees Celsius) temperatures of reentry when it returns from the moon at 25,000 mph (40,000 kph). NASA also wants SLS to bring Orion into orbit to see how the spacecraft, which has a service module built by Airbus and supplied by the European Space Agency, performs in deep space.
The space agency also wants to retrieve the capsule after it crashed in the Pacific Ocean to see how it fared overall. It has more than 1,000 sensors to record every facet of the flight, according to NASA.
At its farthest point from Earth, Orion will be 290,000 miles from our planet and 40,000 miles beyond the moon — the farthest a crew-reviewed capsule has traveled to date (breaking a record set by the Apollo 13 crew in 1970 ). The 42-day mission is much longer than the 10 days that a manned flight would be, NASA said.
Despite its length, the mission is expected to complete only one and a half orbits of the moon as it flies in a long, looping orbit in the opposite direction of the moon’s path around Earth. That “distant retrograde orbit” will take Orion as close as about 60 miles (97 km) and as far as 40,000 miles, mission managers have said.
Inside Orion is a spacesuit-clad “Moonikin” mannequin and humanoid torsos covered with sensors to measure the radiation environment that Artemis astronauts will have to endure. And perhaps the most important test: reentry, when Orion will crash into Earth’s atmosphere, skip a little, and then plunge back down for what NASA calls a “skip reentry.”
“We push the vehicle to its limits and really put the emphasis on being ready for the crew,” Sarafin said.
There are also some scientific goals. The Artemis 1 mission contains 10 small cubes to test deep space exploration technologies. One, called NEA Scout, will use a solar sail to leave the moon in search of a small asteroid, while the others are expected to support Artemis projects near the moon.
“Some of them are testing technology for navigating deep space. We even have one that travels farther and encounters an asteroid,” said Jacob Bleacher, chief research scientist at NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate. “But some of them will focus more on the moon to measure its movement, basically mapping where some of the water deposits might be.”
Astronauts back to the moon
Artistic illustration of SpaceX’s spaceship on the moon. (Image credit: SpaceX)
If all goes well on Artemis 1, NASA will follow it up with Artemis 2, a manned flight that will send four astronauts on a flyby mission around the moon by 2024. The time difference between missions is partly to see how Orion performs and also so that NASA can use some of the avionics and other components on Artemis 1 on the manned flight.
And if that Artemis 2 mission succeeds, NASA hopes to follow through with its first manned moon landing of the 21st century on Artemis 3 in 2025. That moon landing, which will hang two astronauts — including the first woman on the moon — to the lunar south pole. depends on factors outside of SLS and Orion.
NASA needs new spacesuits and a huge lander to complete the Artemis 3 mission. SpaceX is building a massive Starship lunar lander for NASA, while other companies are developing Artemis spacesuits. If either component is late, it will affect the agency’s plans.
“If our suits aren’t ready, we’re not going to land on the moon and the reverse is the same, if our suits are ready and Starship isn’t,” Free said.
But NASA emphasizes its commitment to returning to the moon in a sustainable way, not just with footprints, flags and photos. The agency has already built hardware for Artemis 2 and future SLS boosters, with plans for at least Artemis 9.
NASA has awarded contracts to build components of a new Gateway space station around the moon to serve as a staging post for moon landings. And the ever-present target is Mars, which Nelson said NASA is targeting for a manned landing sometime in the late 2030s.
“There’s a big, big universe to explore,” Nelson said. “This is the next step in that exploration and this time we go with our international partners.”
Email Tariq Malik at [email protected] or follow him @tariqjmalik . follow us @Spacedotcom , Facebook and Instagram .