Years late and with a budget that is billions of dollars more than the initial amount, NASA’s new lunar rocket will be launched next week in a dangerous test flight before doing so with astronauts.
The 322-foot (98-meter) rocket will attempt to carry an unmanned capsule into distant lunar orbit, 50 years after NASA’s famed Apollo missions.
If all goes well, astronauts could board it to go around the Moon in 2024 at the earliest, and NASA hopes that two of them will land on the surface by the end of 2025.
Liftoff is scheduled for Monday morning at NASA’s Kenendy Space Center.
The test flight will last six weeks, is dangerous and could be cut short if something goes wrong, NASA officials have warned.
“We are going to put it under pressure and test it. We’re going to have it do things that we would never do with a crew on board to try to make it as safe as possible,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The retired founder of George Washington University’s space policy institute said the stakes are high in this essay. Rising costs and long intervals between missions will make it difficult to try again if things go wrong, he stressed.
“It is supposed to be the first step in a sustained program for human exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond,” said John Logsdon. “Will the United States have the will to move forward in the face of a major failure?”
This single mission will cost more than $4 billion. If you add up everything from when the program began a decade ago to the lunar landing in 2025, the amount is even more exorbitant: $93 billion.
Below is a summary of the first flight of the Artemis program, a name that corresponds to the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.
The new rocket is shorter and smaller in diameter than the Saturn V series that carried 24 Apollo astronauts to the moon half a century ago. But it’s more powerful, with a thrust output of 4 million kilograms (8.8 million pounds).
The rocket is called the Space Launch System (SLS), although a shorter name is being considered, according to Nelson. Unlike the svelte Saturn V, the new rocket features a pair of main thrusters adapted from NASA’s space shuttles. The boosters will detach after two minutes, like those on the shuttles, but they won’t be salvaged from the Atlantic for reuse. The core stage will continue to burn before separating and falling into the Pacific in pieces. Two hours after liftoff, an upper stage will carry the Orion capsule to the Moon.
The NASA capsule is automated with high technology and is named after the constellation, one of the brightest in the sky. At 3 meters (11 feet) tall, it is roomier than the one in the Apollo program and will carry four astronauts instead of three. For this test flight, a full-size dummy dressed in an orange flight suit will occupy the commander’s seat, equipped with sensors for vibration and acceleration. Two other dummies made of materials that will simulate human tissue —female heads and torsos without limbs— will measure cosmic radiation, one of the greatest dangers in space flight. An Israeli-made protective vest will be tested on one torso. Unlike the rocket, the Orion capsule was launched into space earlier and circled the Earth twice in 2014. This time, the service module made by the European Space Agency will be connected to the Orion capsule to propel and power it with four solar panels.
The flight of the Orion capsule is supposed to last six weeks, from its liftoff in Florida to its landing in the Pacific, twice as long as the missions with astronauts will be in order to test the systems. It will take almost a week to reach the Moon, 386,000 kilometers (240,000 miles) away. After passing close to Earth’s satellite, the capsule will enter a distant orbit as far as 61,000 kilometers (38,000 miles). Thus, Orion will be located 450,000 kilometers (280,000 miles) from Earth, a distance greater than that of the Apollo program. The biggest test will take place at the end of the mission, when Orion enters the atmosphere at 40,000 kilometers per hour (25,000 miles per hour) towards its fall in the Pacific. The heat shield is made of the same material as the Apollo capsules to withstand re-entry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,750 degrees Celsius). But the advanced design anticipates faster and hotter returns for crews traveling to Mars in the future.
In addition to the three test dummies, the flight carries several stowaways to conduct deep space investigations. Ten shoebox-sized satellites will detach from the capsule as Orion heads toward the Moon. The problem is that these minisatellites called CubeSats were installed on the rocket a year ago and the batteries of half of them could not be recharged due to launch delays. NASA expects some to fail, given the low cost and high-risk nature of these minisatellites. The CubeSats that will measure the radiation are expected to work well. A solar sail test device that will steer toward an asteroid is also expected to function properly. In addition, the Orion will carry some lunar rock fragments that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin collected on Apollo 11 in 1969, and a bolt from one of its rocket engines, salvaged from the sea a few decades ago. Aldrin will not attend the launch, according to NASA, but three of his colleagues will: Walter Cunningham of Apollo 7, Tom Stafford of Apollo 10 and Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17, the penultimate man to land on the Moon.
APOLLO AGAINST ARTEMISA
More than 50 years later, the Apollo program remains NASA’s crowning achievement. Using the technology of the 1960s, it took NASA just eight years to go from launching its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, to landing Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon. By contrast, Artemis has lasted more than a decade despite being based on the short-lived Constellation lunar exploration program. Twelve astronauts from the Apollo program walked on the Moon from 1969 to 1972, staying no more than three days each time. For the Artemis program, NASA will draw on a reserve of 42 astronauts and extend the time the crews will be on the Moon to at least a week. The goal is to create a long-term lunar presence that makes it feasible to send people to Mars. NASA’s Nelson has promised to announce the first Artemis crews to the Moon after Orion’s return to Earth.
There is much more to do before the astronauts land on the Moon again. In a second test flight, four astronauts will be sent around the Moon and back, perhaps even in 2024. A year or so later, NASA is aiming to send another four astronauts, two of whom will land at the lunar south pole. Orion won’t have a lunar lander like the one used on the Apollo missions, so NASA has hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to provide his Starship spacecraft for the first Artemis program landing. Two other private companies are developing suits for moonwalking. The sci-fi-looking Starship would dock with Orion in orbit on the Moon, carry two astronauts to the surface and return them to the capsule to return to Earth. To date, the Starship has only risen 10 kilometers (six miles). Musk wants to launch the Starship around the Earth with SpaceX’s Super Heavy Booster before attempting an unmanned Moon landing. One drawback: the Starship will need to be recharged at a fuel depot in Earth orbit before heading to the Moon.