NASA’s mega-moon rocket ready for launch on the eve of the first Artemis mission

By Joey Roulette

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – Launch teams at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida spent a final full day of preparations ahead of Monday’s scheduled launch of NASA’s giant next-generation rocket on its first test flight, launching the agency’s Artemis moon- program to-Mars 50 years after the end of Apollo.

NASA officials said Sunday that all systems appeared to be “go” for liftoff, and weather forecasts called for an 80 percent chance of favorable conditions at the top of Monday’s two-hour launch window, beginning at 8:33 a.m. EDT (12:33 GMT ), dropping to 60% toward the end of that period.

“Everything so far looks good from a vehicle standpoint,” said Jeff Spaulding, NASA’s senior test manager for the landmark mission, named Artemis I. “We’re excited, the vehicle is ready, it looks great.”

Although lightning rods at the launch site were knocked out during a storm on Saturday, Spaulding said he “hasn’t seen anything in the ground system that gives us cause for concern.” NASA said there was no damage to the spacecraft or launch facilities.

The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is set to propel an unmanned capsule called Orion around the moon and back on a six-week test flight designed to put both vehicles through their paces before flying astronauts on a follow-up mission with a target of 2024. The 322-foot-tall (98 m) SLS-Orion combination is the centerpiece of the US space agency’s successor to the Apollo moon program of the 1960s and 1970s.

If those two missions are successful, NASA aims to land astronauts back on the Moon, including the first woman to set foot on the lunar surface, as early as 2025, though many experts believe that timeframe is likely to slip by some years . The last humans to walk on the moon were the two-man Apollo 17 landing team in 1972, following in the footsteps of 10 other astronauts during five previous missions beginning with Apollo 11 in 1969.

The Artemis program seeks to eventually establish a long-term lunar base as a stepping stone for even more ambitious astronaut trips to Mars, a goal that NASA officials have said will likely take at least until the late 2030s to achieve.

The SLS has been in development for more than a decade, with years of delays and cost overruns. But the Artemis program has also created tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in trade under prime contractors Boeing Co for SLS and Lockheed Martin Corp for Orion.

The one issue NASA officials were looking at Sunday ahead of the SLS’s maiden flight was a possible—but small—helium leak in the launch pad’s equipment, though Spaulding told reporters during a press conference on the eve of the launch that he didn’t expect any technical exposure inhibitor. on the countdown.

“This is a test flight, remember that,” NASA chief Bill Nelson said in an interview with Reuters that was interrupted by a surprise phone call from US Vice President Kamala Harris, who will be in Florida to witness the launch. .

“She’s excited!” Nelson said after the call.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Editing by Steve Gorman and Paul Simao)

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