NASA’s next-generation lunar rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) Artemis 1 rocket, carries an Orion crew capsule on board Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA, August 17, 2022. (REUTERS/Joe Skipper) /file photo)
Cape Canaveral, Fla.: Years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, NASA’s New Moon rocket will debut next week in a risky test flight before astronauts come out on top.
A 322-foot (98-meter) rocket will attempt to send an empty crew capsule into distant lunar orbit, 50 years after NASA’s famous Apollo lunar shots.
If all goes well, NASA aims to land two people on the moon by the end of 2025, and astronauts could orbit the moon in 2024.
Liftoff is set 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.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated: Press Wednesday.
The former founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute said a lot depends on the pilot. Rising costs and long gaps between missions will make recovery difficult if things go wrong, he said.
“This should be the first step in a human mission to the Moon, Mars and beyond,” said John Logsdon. Huh?”
Price tag for this single mission: Over $4 billion. Add everything from the program’s inception 10 years ago to the moon landing in 2025, and there’s even more sticker shock: $93 billion.
This is an overview of the first flight of the Artemis Project, named after Apollo’s mythical twin sisters.
The new rocket is shorter and slimmer than the Saturn V rocket that flew 24 Apollo astronauts to the moon half a century ago. But it’s more powerful, packing 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust. According to Nelson, it’s called the Space Launch System Rocket, or SLS for short, but a more sleazy name is being debated. It has a pair of strap-on boosters modified from the space shuttle.
Boosters will detach after 2 minutes like Shuttle Boosters, but they will not be fished out of the Atlantic and reused. The core stage continues to fire before separating and crashing into the Pacific Ocean. Two hours after launch, the Orion capsule races to the moon from the upper stage.
NASA’s high-tech robotic Orion capsule is named after the brightest constellation in the night sky. At 11 feet (3 meters) tall, it is wider than Apollo’s capsule and can seat four of his astronauts instead of three. In this test flight, a life-size dummy in his orange Flight suit sits in the cockpit and is equipped with vibration and accelerometer sensors.
Two other mannequins made from materials that mimic human tissue—with a head and a female torso but no limbs—measure cosmic radiation, one of spaceflight’s biggest risks. One of the fuselages is testing an Israeli protective vest. Unlike rockets, Orion has been launched before, making her two orbits around the Earth in 2014. This time, a European Space Agency service module will be attached for propulsion and solar power via her four wings.
Orion’s flight is supposed to last six weeks from takeoff in Florida to landing in the Pacific Ocean, twice as long as astronauts travel to strain the system. It would take nearly a week to reach the Moon, which is 240,000 miles (386,000 km) away. After circling the moon, the capsule will enter a distant orbit with its apoapsis at 38,000 miles (61,000 kilometers). This leaves Orion 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) from Earth, farther than Apollo. The big test comes at the end of the mission when Orion re-enters the atmosphere at 25,000 mph (40,000 kph) on its way to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. The heat shield uses the same materials as the Apollo capsule to withstand re-entry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,750 degrees Celsius).
In addition to the three test dummies, this flight will have a number of stowaways for deep space research. As Orion charges towards the Moon, ten shoebox-sized moons pop out of her. The problem is that these so-called CubeSats were put on a rocket a year before hers and continued to be delayed in launch, so they couldn’t charge half the batteries. NASA expects some to fail given the low-cost and high-risk nature of these small satellites. A CubeSat measuring radiation should be fine.
Also to be clear: a demonstration of a solar sail targeting an asteroid. Orion will carry lunar rock debris collected by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz his Aldrin in 1969, as well as bolts from his rocket engine that were salvaged from the ocean a decade earlier. According to NASA, Aldrin was not present at the launch, but three of his former colleagues will be.
Apollo vs Artemis
More than 50 years later, Apollo remains NASA’s greatest achievement. Using his 1960s technology, NASA took just eight years from the launch of the first astronaut Alan Shepard to the landing of Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. By contrast, Artemis has already lingered on for more than a decade, even though it was built on the short-lived lunar exploration program Constellation.From 1969 to 1972, 12 Apollo astronauts walked on the moon, but stayed only three days at a time.
For Artemis, NASA is currently recruiting from a diverse pool of 42 astronauts to extend the crew’s time on the lunar surface to at least a week. The goal is to create a long-term lunar presence that lubricates the skids to send people to Mars. NASA’s Nelson promises to announce the first Artemis moon crew once Orion returns to Earth.
There is still a lot of work to be done before astronauts can step back on the moon. A second test flight will have four astronauts orbiting the moon, with him expected to return as early as 2024. A year or so later, NASA will send four more astronauts, two of whom will aim to land her at the South Pole of the Moon. Orion doesn’t come with its own lunar lander like the Apollo spacecraft, so NASA hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to provide a Starship spacecraft for the first Artemis lunar landing. Besides, he has two private companies developing moonwalk suits.
A sci-fi-like starship will connect with Orion on the moon, take two astronauts to the surface, return to the capsule, and return home. So far, the Starship has climbed her only six miles (10 kilometers). Musk wants to launch a starship around Earth with his Super Heavy Booster from SpaceX before attempting a manned moon landing. One problem: Starships must refuel in orbiting fuel depots before heading to the Moon.