CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Years behind schedule and billions over budget, NASA’s new moon rocket makes its debut next week on a high-risk test flight before astronauts climb to the top.
The 322-foot (98-meter) rocket will attempt to send an empty crew capsule into distant lunar orbit, 50 years after NASA’s famous moon shots.
If all goes well, astronauts could enter 2024 for a trip around the moon, with NASA aiming to land two humans on the lunar surface by the end of 2025.
Liftoff is set for Monday morning from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
The six-week test flight is risky and could be aborted if something goes wrong, NASA officials warn.
“We will highlight 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,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The retired founder of George Washington University’s space policy institute said a lot is driving this test run. Rising costs and long gaps between missions will make for a difficult return if things go south, he noted.
“It’s supposed to be the first step in an ongoing program of human exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond,” said John Logsdon. “Will the United States have the will to move forward in the face of a major dysfunction?”
The price tag for this mission: more than $4 billion. Add up everything from the start of the program a decade ago to the moon landing in 2025, and there’s an even bigger shock: $93 billion.
Here is a summary of the first flight of the Artemis program, named after the mythological twin sister of Apollo.
The new rocket is shorter and thinner than the Saturn V rockets that launched 24 Apollo astronauts to the moon half a century ago. But it’s more powerful, with 8.8 million pounds (4 million kg) of thrust. It’s called the Space Launch System rocket, SLS for short, but a less heavy-handed name is under discussion, according to Nelson. Unlike the improved Saturn V, the new rocket has a pair of belt-driven boosters repurposed from NASA’s space shuttles. The boosters will detach after two minutes, just like the bus boosters did, but they won’t be fished out of the Atlantic for reuse. The core stage will continue to fire before breaking apart and crashing into the Pacific in pieces. Two hours after liftoff, an upper stage will send the capsule, Orion, hurtling toward the moon.
NASA’s high-tech, automated Orion capsule is named after the constellation, among the brightest in the night sky. At 11 feet (3 meters) tall, it is more spacious than the Apollo capsule, carrying four astronauts instead of three. For this test flight, a full-size dummy in an orange flight suit will occupy the pilot’s seat, equipped with vibration and acceleration sensors. Two other mannequins made of material that simulates human tissue – heads and a female torso, but no limbs – will measure cosmic radiation, one of the biggest dangers of spaceflight. One trunk tries on a protective vest from Israel. Unlike the rocket, Orion has launched before, completing two orbits around Earth in 2014. This time, the European Space Agency’s service module will be attached for propulsion and solar power via four wings.
Orion’s flight is supposed to last six weeks from its landing in Florida to its fall in the Pacific, twice as long as the astronauts travel to tax the systems. It will take almost a week to reach the moon, 240,000 miles (386,000 kilometers) away. After a close approach to the moon, the capsule will enter a distant orbit with a far point of 38,000 miles (61,000 kilometers). This will bring Orion 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) from Earth, further than Apollo. The big test comes at the end of the mission, as Orion hits the atmosphere at 25,000 mph (40,000 km/h) on its way to a crash in the Pacific. The heat shield uses the same material as the Apollo capsules to withstand re-entry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,750 degrees Celsius). However, the advanced design predicts faster, warmer returns by future Mars crews.
In addition to three test dummies, the flight has several stowaways for deep space research. Ten shoebox-sized satellites will appear once Orion rockets toward the moon. The problem is that these so-called CubeSats were installed on the rocket a year ago, and the batteries for half of them could not be recharged as the launch was constantly delayed. NASA expects some to fail, given the low-cost, high-risk nature of these minisatellites. CubeSats measuring radiation should be OK. Also in the clear: a demonstration of a solar sail targeting an asteroid. In a salute back to the future, Orion will carry some pieces of moon rock collected by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11 in 1969, and a bolt from one of their rocket engines, salvaged from the sea a decade ago . Aldrin will not attend the launch, according to NASA, but three of his former colleagues will be there: Walter Cunningham of Apollo 7, Tom Stafford of Apollo 10 and Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17, the last man to walk. to the moon.
APOLLO VS. ARTEMIS
More than 50 years later, Apollo is still NASA’s greatest achievement. Using technology from the 1960s, it took NASA just eight years from the launch of its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, to the landing of Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. By contrast, Artemis has already been delayed for more than a decade, despite being based on the short-lived Constellation lunar exploration program. Twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon from 1969 to 1972, staying no more than three days at a time. For Artemis, NASA will draw from a diverse astronaut pool that currently numbers 42 and extend the time crews will spend on the moon to at least a week. The goal is to establish a long-term lunar presence that will grease the skids for sending humans to Mars. NASA’s Nelson promises to announce the first Artemis moon crews once Orion returns to Earth.
Much remains to be done before astronauts set foot on the moon again. 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, with two of them touching down at the lunar south pole. Orion doesn’t come with its own lunar rover like the Apollo spacecraft, so NASA hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to provide its Starship spacecraft for the first Artemis landing. Two other private companies are developing suits for moonwalking. The sci-fi-looking Starship would dock with Orion on the moon and pick up a pair of astronauts on the surface and return to the capsule for the journey home. So far, the Starship has climbed only six miles (10 kilometers). Musk wants to launch the Starship around Earth with SpaceX’s Super Heavy Booster before attempting an unmanned moon landing. One problem: The spacecraft will need refueling at an Earth-orbiting fuel depot before heading to the moon.
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