All systems go for the Artemis 1 mission to the Moon

The Artemis 1 rocket on Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center

The Artemis 1 rocket on Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center.

Fifty years after the last Apollo mission, the Artemis program is set to take over lunar exploration with a test launch Monday of NASA’s most powerful rocket.

The goal is to return humans to the Moon for the first time since the last Apollo mission in 1972, and possibly to Mars.

The 322-foot (98-meter) Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is scheduled to lift off at 8:33 a.m. (12:33 p.m. GMT) from Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

The mission, more than a decade in the planning, may be uncrewed but is highly symbolic for NASA, which has come under pressure from China and private rivals such as SpaceX.

Hotels around Cape Canaveral are sold out with between 100,000 and 200,000 spectators expected for the launch.

The huge orange and white rocket has been sitting on KSC’s Launch Complex 39B for a week.

“Since we hit the pad last week, you can feel the excitement, the energy,” KSC manager Janet Petro said. “It’s really, really palpable.”

The objective of the flight, called Artemis 1, is to test the SLS and the Orion crew capsule which sits atop the rocket.

Manikins fitted with sensors will take the place of crew members, recording levels of acceleration, vibration and radiation.

The cameras will capture every moment of the 42-day journey and include a selfie of the spacecraft with the Moon and Earth in the background.

The White Flight Control Room at the Johnson Space Center Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas

The white flight control room at the Johnson Space Center Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas.

Splashdown in the Pacific

The Orion capsule will orbit the Moon, closing within 60 miles (100 kilometers) at its closest approach, then fire its engines to travel 40,000 miles beyond, a record for a spacecraft spacecraft designed to transport humans.

One of the main objectives of the mission is to test the capsule’s heat shield, which, at 16 feet in diameter, is the largest ever built.

Upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, the heat shield will have to withstand a speed of 25,000 miles per hour and a temperature of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius).

Orion, its descent slowed by parachutes, will end its journey with a splash off San Diego in the Pacific.

Monday’s liftoff will be at the mercy of weather, which can be unpredictable in Florida at this time of year, and NASA has scheduled a two-hour launch window.

The Artemis 1 rocket on the launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida

The Artemis 1 rocket on the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

If the rocket is unable to lift off on Monday, September 2 and 5 have been penciled in as alternate flight dates.

Otherwise, it’s all systems go.

NASA gave the mission the go-ahead on Tuesday after a detailed inspection known as the Flight Readiness Review.

That doesn’t mean things can’t go wrong with a rocket and a capsule flying for the first time.

‘Inherent risk’

“We are doing something that is incredibly difficult to do and has inherent risks,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis 1 mission manager.

Because this is an uncrewed flight, Sarafin said the mission will continue under conditions that would not be acceptable for a flight with astronauts.

“If we had a failed solar array deployment, we would continue, and that’s something we wouldn’t necessarily do on a crewed flight,” he said.

  • A training module mockup of Gateway's Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module in Houston, Texas

    A training module mockup of Gateway’s Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module in Houston, Texas.

  • How the United States Plans to Return to the Moon

    Graphic of NASA’s Artemis program to establish a mini-space station in orbit around the Moon before landing on the surface in 2024.

Complete failure would be devastating for a program that costs $4.1 billion to launch and is already years behind schedule.

The next mission, Artemis 2, will take astronauts into orbit around the Moon without landing on its surface. The Artemis 3 crew is due to land on the Moon in 2025 at the earliest.

While the Apollo astronauts who walked on the Moon were exclusively white men, the Artemis program plans to include the first woman and person of color.

NASA's Artemis 1 rocket is deployed to Launch Pad Complex 39B at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida

NASA’s Artemis 1 rocket is deployed to Launch Pad Complex 39B at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida.

And since humans have visited the Moon before, Artemis is aiming for another lofty goal: a possible crewed mission to Mars.

The Artemis program is to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon with an orbiting space station known as the Gateway and a base on the surface.

Gateway would serve as a staging and refueling station for a trip to Mars that would take at least several months.

“I think it’s going to inspire even more than Apollo,” Bob Cabana, NASA associate administrator and former astronaut, said of Artemis. “It’s going to be absolutely exceptional.”

NASA prepares for the launch of the planned Artemis I lunar mission

© 2022 AFP

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