NASA’s return to the Moon begins with a critical test flight of an uncrewed rocket
NASA is about to take the first step in its journey to get people back to the Moon by the end of the decade.
If all goes well, a massive uncrewed rocket will blast off from Kennedy Space Center on Monday morning, then circle the moon in an orbit that will take it deep into space before returning to Earth 42 days later.
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The Artemis I mission marks a critical moment for NASA and the space industry.
The Artemis program, named after the twin sister of the god Apollo in Greek mythology, aims to land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon as soon as 2025.
Among the mission-critical components are the rocket built by Boeing Co., called the Space Launch System, and the Orion crew capsule made by Lockheed Martin Corp.
A future landing vehicle will be provided by Space Exploration Technology Corp.
The stakes are high for NASA and its contractors after a decade of development delays and cost overruns. This is the first time since the end of the space shuttle program that NASA has launched a new flagship vehicle and system for human spaceflight.
After the shuttle’s retirement, NASA relied on Russia’s Soyuz rocket to get humans to and from the International Space Station and, more recently, turned to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and spacecraft capsule. Dragon crew.
NASA’s return to lunar missions has followed a long and winding path on Earth. Several administrations proposed ambitious manned spaceflight programs after the end of Apollo, only to fall victim to budgetary problems.
Artemis, despite gaining congressional support to continue, was beset by high-profile setbacks.
The space launch system has been in development for about a decade, slowed by myriad delays and cost overruns. More than five years behind schedule, the rocket has seen its development cost drop from $7 billion to around $23 billion, according to an estimate by the Planetary Society.
Several audits by NASA’s prime contractor, Boeing, have criticized the company for its handling of the SLS and highlighted flaws throughout the vehicle’s build and testing.
NASA and Boeing are tempering pre-launch expectations, stressing that Artemis I is a test of a highly complex new system.
“It’s not without risk,” Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, told a pre-launch press conference. “We analyzed the risk as best we could, and we also mitigated it as best we could.”
Even a successful test flight may not be enough to satisfy SLS’s many critics who bemoan the rocket’s high price and inefficiency.
SpaceX’s planned deep-space Starship spacecraft could prove even more powerful than SLS, as well as cheaper to develop and launch when it becomes operational.
Additionally, Starship is designed to be fully reusable, unlike the SLS, which will be expended after each launch.
But Starship has yet to reach orbit, and it could be years before the vehicle is ready to transport humans to deep space.
Additionally, NASA has also contracted SpaceX to develop Starship as a human lunar landing system as part of Artemis. So SLS and Starship can be seen as competitors, but they will work together to help get NASA astronauts back to the Moon.
The SLS is scheduled to lift off from launch pad LC-39B at 8:33 a.m. Florida time, placing the Orion capsule into orbit around Earth. Then just under two hours after launch, the upper stage of the SLS will ignite and send Orion on its way to the moon.
Six days after launch, Orion will approach within 60 miles of the lunar surface, using the moon’s gravity to enter an elongated orbit.
Saturday morning, the launch seemed to be a success.
“At this time we are not as a launch team working on any significant issues, so I’m happy to report that and everything is on schedule,” said Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, Director of Launch of the NASA, during a press conference.
The goal is to demonstrate that the Orion capsule can be launched and recovered safely before an attempt is made with a human crew.
The spacecraft’s trajectory will take it farther from Earth than any other vehicle built to transport humans has done before. After spending about two weeks in lunar orbit, Orion will return to Earth and dive into the Pacific Ocean off San Diego by parachute on October 10.
NASA officials put the risk of losing the vehicle at one in 125.
Although no humans will be on board, a dummy – nicknamed Commander Moonikin Campos after a legendary NASA engineer who helped bring Apollo 13 safely back to Earth – will be on board, seated at the Interior of Commander’s Seat.
Various sensors on its seat and spacesuit will collect vibration, acceleration and radiation data throughout the mission. Two additional mannequin torsos will be on board, equipped with thousands of sensors to record even more detail.
The main purpose of the uncrewed mission is to test the rocket’s heat shield, which will protect astronauts during their reentry, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told Bloomberg on Saturday.
“And how critical is that? You don’t put humans on top until you think it’s safe. So it’s a critical test,” he said.
Additionally, a package called Callisto, named after Artemis’ companion in Greek mythology, will fly inside Orion.
Callisto houses both an Amazon Alexa and a touchscreen that will host Cisco’s Webex software.
The payload is intended to test smart tools that future astronauts could use on Orion to communicate via video with Mission Control and obtain information about their position in space.
The SLS also contains nearly a dozen small satellites that the rocket will deploy after sending Orion on its way to the Moon.
There are a lot of moving parts in this mission and many test objectives that NASA hopes to accomplish. But Artemis I could prove to be a watershed moment for NASA.
“NASA needs to show it works,” said Casey Dreier, senior policy adviser for the Planetary Society. “That’s the fundamental risk of this program.”
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