Half a century after the end of NASA’s Apollo era, the US space agency’s long-awaited bid to return astronauts to the lunar surface is at least three years away, with much of the necessary hardware still on the table. of design.

But NASA intends to take a giant leap in its lunar ambitions with a launch next Monday in Florida of a next-generation megarocket: the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion crew capsule.
The combined SLS-Orion spacecraft will lift off from Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center, sending the uncrewed capsule around the Moon and back to Earth on a six-week test flight called Artemis I.

“We’re ready to launch,” NASA associate administrator Bob Cabana, a former space shuttle pilot and commander, said at a briefing late Monday following the mission readiness review.

The purpose of the trip is to subject the SLS vehicle, considered the most complex and powerful rocket in the world, to a rigorous test of its systems during an actual flight before it is considered ready to transport astronauts.

The SLS represents the largest vertical launch system NASA has built since the Saturn V rockets that flew during the Apollo lunar program in the 1960s and 1970s.

After more than a decade of development, with years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns, the SLS-Orion spacecraft has so far cost NASA at least $37 billion, including design, construction, testing and ground facilities.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has called the Artemis program an “economic engine,” noting that in 2019 alone, for example, it generated $14 billion in trade and supported 70,000 American jobs.

Congress has steadily increased NASA’s budget to include funding for Artemis. Among the biggest financial beneficiaries are the main contractors for SLS and Orion: Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp, respectively.

NASA’s Artemis program, named after the goddess who was the twin sister of Apollo in ancient Greek mythology, aims to return astronauts to the Moon in 2025 or later, and eventually establish a colony. as a preliminary step to future trips to Mars.

“Even with this delay and budget increase, it’s doubtful that NASA will land humans on the Moon in 2025, but if all goes well, it could happen in the next few years,” Lori Garver, who was deputy administrator of NASA, told Reuters. NASA during the conception of the rocket.

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