Watch NASA’s mammoth moon rocket take off for the first time

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket sits on the launch pad in Florida. (Photo via Boeing Space / Twitter)

More than 100,000 people are expected to flood Florida’s Space Coast Monday morning to watch NASA’s most powerful rocket lift off on a historic Artemis 1 mission to the moon and beyond — but if you can’t make it in person, watch launching online may well be the next best thing.

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is scheduled to lift off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B at 8:33 a.m. ET (5:33 a.m. PT) on Monday, at the start of a two-hour launch window. Forecasters say there is an 80% chance of acceptable weather at the start of the window, dropping to 60% by the end.

No major problems occurred during the countdown, senior test manager Jeff Spalding said today. “We are prepared for anything,” he told reporters. But if weather or technical issues force a postponement, September 2nd and 5th are the backup dates for the release.

Video streaming coverage is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. PT tonight on NASA TV with commentary on the SLS power-up operation. Coverage begins in full swing at 3:30am. PT Monday. (See the full schedule.)

The Artemis 1 mission calls for the first SLS launch to send an unmanned Orion spacecraft on a 42-day test flight that features a long-range lunar orbit, approaching as close as 62 miles from the moon and extending up to 40,000 miles beyond the moon. This would set a distance record for any spacecraft designed to carry astronauts.

At the end of the mission, the Orion capsule will come screaming back to Earth at 25,000 mph, headed for a dive into the Pacific Ocean. One of Artemis 1’s primary goals is to test the performance of Orion’s heat shield at atmospheric re-entry temperatures ranging up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

NASA and its commercial partners have been working on this flight for more than a decade. Artemis 1 represents the first real-world test of the SLS-Orion system, setting the stage for a crewed Artemis 2 flight around the Moon in the 2024 timeframe and an Artemis 3 lunar landing in 2025 or 2026.

Just watching the launch should be a thrill – and if you’re watching at home, be sure to turn up the volume. “Put it down first: It will be possible,” NASA SLS chief engineer John Blevins told Florida Today. With a launch thrust of 8.8 million pounds, the SLS is 15 percent more powerful than the Apollo-era Saturn V rocket.

Before the fireworks, the countdown will feature plenty of star power: Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, will be in attendance. Singer Josh Grobin will join pianist Herbie Hancock to perform the National Anthem, the Philadelphia Orchestra and cellist Yo-Yo Ma will play “America the Beautiful,” and actors Jack Black and Chris Evans will also be part of the performance.

Why all the flag waving? It’s natural to make much of the first launch in a program intended to put the first woman and the first person of color on the lunar surface, 50 years after the last Apollo mission to the moon. And looking beyond history, this is an opportunity for NASA to take the spotlight away from commercial space ventures like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

SpaceX already has a supporting role at Artemis, under its contract to provide the lunar lander for the Artemis 3 crew. Blue Origin also hopes to win a share of NASA’s operations for future Artemis missions. But there is a danger that some in Congress will look at the cumulative cost of the Artemis program (recently estimated at $93 billion by 2025) — and wonder whether, say, SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket could do the entire work at a lower price. A pleasing success for the SLS could prevent this kind of second-guessing.

Bhavya Lal, NASA’s associate administrator for technology, policy and strategy, emphasized during a pre-launch briefing that Artemis 1 will help lay the foundation for more than a decade of exploration on the moon, Mars and beyond that.

“What we’re starting with Monday’s launch is not a short-term sprint, but a long-term marathon to bring the solar system and beyond into our sphere,” he said.

Experiments performed on Artemis 1 show this long-term perspective.

Although no humans will be driving this Orion spacecraft, three instrumented mannequins – led by a pseudonymous Commander Moonikin Campos – will collect data on environmental conditions during the journey. In partnership with NASA, Cisco and Lockheed Martin, Amazon is flying an Alexa-like voice assistant called Callisto that could provide information (and companionship) to future crews headed for the moon or Mars.

The SLS rocket will also deploy 10 nanosatellites as secondary payloads for scientific research, including a Japanese probe that will attempt to land on the moon in an airbag.

So as impressive as Monday’s launch promises to be, Artemis 1 is much more than a big explosion.

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