CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) – Years late and billions over budget, NASA’s new moon rocket makes its debut next week on a high-stakes test flight before astronauts reach the top.
The 98-meter rocket will attempt to send an empty crew capsule into distant lunar orbit, 50 years after NASA’s famous Apollo lunar launches.
If all goes well, astronauts could prepare in 2024 for a trip around the moon, with NASA aiming to land two people on the lunar surface by the end of 2025.
Liftoff is scheduled for Monday morning from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
The six-week test flight is risky and could be stopped if something fails, NASA officials warn.
“Let’s emphasize it and test it. We’re going to make it do things that we would never do with a team to try and make it as safe as possible,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told the Associated Press Wednesday.
The retired founder of the George Washington University space policy institute said a lot is happening in this test. Spiraling costs and long intervals between missions will be a tough payback if things go wrong, he noted.
“It is supposed to be the first step in a sustained program of human exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond,” said John Logsdon. “Will the United States be willing to move forward in the face of a major malfunction?”
The price for this single mission: over $4 billion. Add it all up from the program’s inception a decade ago to a moon landing in 2025, and there’s even more shock: $93 billion.
Here is a summary of the first flight of the Artemis program, named after Apollo’s mythological twin.
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 kilograms) of thrust. It’s called the Space Launch System rocket, SLS for short, but a less clunky name is under discussion, according to Nelson. Unlike the streamlined Saturn V, the new rocket has a pair of thrusters remade from NASA’s space shuttles. The thrusters will peel off after two minutes, just like the shuttle’s thrusters, but they won’t be fished out of the Atlantic for reuse. The main stage will continue firing before breaking apart and falling into the Pacific in pieces. Two hours after liftoff, an upper stage will send the capsule, Orion, racing towards the moon.
NASA’s high-tech automated Orion capsule is named after the constellation, among the brightest in the night sky. At 3 meters tall, it is more spacious than the Apollo capsule, accommodating four astronauts instead of three. For this test flight, a full-size dummy in an orange flight suit will occupy the commander’s seat, equipped with vibration and acceleration sensors. Two other mannequins made of material that simulates human tissue – female heads and torsos, but without limbs – will measure cosmic radiation, one of the biggest risks of spaceflight. A torso is testing an Israeli protective vest. Unlike the rocket, Orion has been launched before, circling the Earth twice in 2014. This time, the European Space Agency’s service module will be connected for propulsion and solar power via four wings.
Orion’s flight is expected to take six weeks from takeoff in Florida to landing in the Pacific, twice as long as astronauts’ trips to overload systems. It will take almost a week to reach the moon, 386,000 kilometers away. After rotating closely around the moon, the capsule will enter a distant orbit with a point distant 38,000 miles (61,000 kilometers). This will put Orion 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) from Earth, farther than Apollo. The big test comes at the end of the mission, when Orion hits the atmosphere at 40,000 km/h on the way to a Pacific dive. The heat shield uses the same material as the Apollo capsules to withstand re-entry temperatures of 2,750 degrees Celsius. But the advanced design anticipates the faster and hotter returns of future Mars crews.
In addition to three test dummies, the flight has a number of stowaways for deep space research. Ten shoebox-sized satellites will explode as Orion is hurled toward the moon. The problem is that these so-called CubeSats were installed on the rocket a year ago, and the batteries of half of them could not be recharged as the launch kept being delayed. NASA expects some to fail, given the low-cost, high-risk nature of these minisatellites. Radiation measurement CubeSats should be OK. It’s also clear: a demonstration of a solar sail targeting an asteroid. In a back-to-the-future salute, Orion will carry some shards of moon rock collected by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11 in 1969, and a bolt from one of its rocket engines, salvaged from the sea a decade ago. Aldrin is not present at the launch, according to NASA, but three of his former colleagues will be there: Apollo 7’s Walter Cunningham, Apollo 10’s Tom Stafford, and Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt, the penultimate man to set foot. on 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 to launch its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, and the landing of Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. On the other hand, Artemis has been dragging on for more than a decade, despite building the Constellation short-lived 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 on a diverse group of astronauts currently numbering 42 and is extending the time the teams will spend on the Moon to at least a week. The goal is to create a long-term lunar presence that lubricates the skates to send people to Mars. NASA’s Nelson promises to announce the first lunar crews of Artemis once Orion is back on Earth.
WHAT IS THE NEXT
There’s a lot more 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 another four up, with two of them landing on the lunar south pole. Orion doesn’t come with its own lunar module like the Apollo spacecraft, so NASA hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to provide its Starship spacecraft for the first Artemis moon landing. Two other private companies are developing moonwalking suits. The sci-fi-looking starship would connect with Orion on the moon and take a pair of astronauts to the surface and back to the capsule for the return home. So far, Starship has only climbed six miles (10 kilometers). Musk wants to launch the Starship around the Earth in SpaceX’s Super Heavy Booster before attempting an unmanned moon landing. One problem: the starship will need to be fueled at a fuel depot orbiting Earth before heading to the moon.
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