Artemis 1: Crowds gather to watch NASA’s most powerful rocket fly to the moon

TThe most powerful space rocket ever to leave Earth will take a 50-year leap across the sky when it lifts off from its Florida launch pad on Monday, one of the last crucial test steps before humanity returns to the moon for the first time since of 1972.

Artemis 1, which includes Orion, a six-person deep space exploration capsule, on a 98 m (322 ft), 2,600 ton (2,875 ton) Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket is planned for its maiden liftoff at 8.33am 1.33pm UK time) from the same Cape Canaveral launch complex that hosted the Apollo moon missions half a century ago.

In addition to the spectacular fire show that is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of spectators to Florida’s Space Coast, Nasa is eager to show off the progress it has made in its efforts to return astronauts to the Moon .

“This day has been a long time coming,” NASA Associate Administrator Robert Cabana said after mission managers concluded a flight readiness review this week. “We’re about to launch, which is outstanding.”

The test flight scheduled for Monday, which has a two-hour launch window and will last 42 days on a 1.3m-mile odyssey to 40,000 miles beyond the far side of the moon and back, includes two close flybys 62 miles above the lunar surface. .

Orion is unmanned, apart from dummies that will allow Nasa to assess its next-generation spacesuits and radiation levels, and a stuffed Snoopy that will float around the capsule as a zero-gravity indicator.

But a successful mission would bring the agency closer to its goal of sending two astronauts, including the first woman, to land on the moon’s south pole by the end of 2025, while up to two others remain in lunar orbit in a command module .

A second tentative test flight, Artemis II, is scheduled for May 2024, taking a crew of four to the Moon and back, though not landing, and sending humans beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since from Apollo 17 in December 1972.

That mission nearly 50 years ago also brought the last two of only 12 people, all men, to ever walk on the moon, Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan.

“This is now the Artemis generation. We were in the Apollo generation. This is a new generation. This is a new kind of astronaut,” said Bill Nelson, NASA administrator and former space shuttle astronaut. at a press conference earlier this month.

Noting the symbolism in the show’s name, in Greek mythology, Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo, he added: “To all of us looking at the moon, dreaming of the day when humanity will return to the lunar surface. .. people, we are here.”

Despite being a new rocket, SLS is largely based on existing technology. Its 8.8 million pounds of center stage thrust, 15 percent more power than Apollo-era Saturn V rockets, comes from four RS-25 engines recycled from the Space Shuttle program that ended in 2011.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson speaks to reporters in Cape Canaveral.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson speaks to reporters in Cape Canaveral. Photograph: John Raoux/AP

Also, the two solid five-stage rocket boosters are “based on three decades of knowledge and experience gained with the Space Shuttle booster and enhanced with the latest technology,” Nasa said.

After reaching lowest Earth orbit for about eight minutes of flight, a translunar injection burn will increase Orion’s speed from 17,500 mph to 22,600 mph to escape the pull of Earth’s gravity and guide the ship to a precise point close enough to be captured by the moon. gravity

Nelson said the flight would allow mission managers to thoroughly test the capabilities of the rocket and capsule to ensure their safety for human spaceflight.

“We’re going to stress it and test it. We’re going to make it do things that we would never do with a crew to try to make it as safe as possible,” he said.

Orion will remain in space longer than any human spacecraft in history without docking at a space station, and its return home to a splash of the Pacific Ocean in mid-October will be faster and hotter than any previous vehicle.

Traveling at up to 25,000 mph, the capsule will challenge temperatures of around 2,800 C (5,000 F) as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere and decelerates to around 300 mph. Three parachutes will then be deployed to further slow the Orion to less than 20 mph per splash in San Diego, California.

The development of NASA’s first lunar craft in two generations has followed a rocky path. The heavy-lift SLS rocket ran into problems during testing last year, while it was already three years behind schedule and nearly $3 billion (£2.5 billion) over budget.

The $4.1 billion cost of each launch has also come under scrutiny, with Paul Martin, NASA’s inspector general, telling Congress in March that the figure was “unsustainable.” According to the latest estimates, NASA will have spent $93 billion on the program by 2025, with large sums going to private US contractors such as Lockheed Martin, which developed Orion, and Boeing, which built the center stage of SLS.

“NASA has already taken steps, at least tentatively, to buy a production run of SLS, which will help reduce the cost if you buy several at once instead of one each,” said John Logsdon, founder of the Institute of Spatial Policy at George Washington University.

Logsdon also points to the concern of analysts such as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) that the Artemis program, due in part to NASA’s reliance on external partners, lacks a defined leadership structure and the Apollo and space control almost entirely internal. shuttle projects.

“A piecemeal and uncoordinated approach is doomed to failure,” the group told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in March.

The criticism is valid, Logsdon said. “There is general agreement that the management structure that NASA has evolved for Artemis needs fixing, and there needs to be a central structure to manage all the elements of a very complex enterprise.

“[But] a schedule is just a schedule. And two years between this mission and the next doesn’t sound too aggressive to me.

“This is, after all, a test mission. There’s a lot that can go wrong, some things probably will go wrong. The question is whether they’re catastrophic failures, or failures that can be fixed and fixed, and we won’t know that until we fly the mission. NASA recognizes that the world is watching.”

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