Thirty-three years after humans first walked on the Moon, NASA is launching its ambitious Artemis program to return us there, beginning Monday with the unmanned launch of a massive new rocket.
The Artemis I mission, scheduled for Monday morning, will see the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the second flight of the Orion capsule. It’s been a long road to the launch pad.
The origin story of the SLS extends back to 2010, when Congress directed NASA To develop a rocket as a follow-up to the spacecraft. If the rocket’s appearance sounds familiar — specifically the two solid boosters flanking a central liquid hydrogen tank — that’s because it borrows much of its technology from the Shuttle. But even with the emergence of private launch companies like SpaceX, which have perfected the art of rocket reusability, NASA, Congress and the defense contractors they hired persisted in developing the SLS.
Throughout, the project has been mired in cost escalation and technical delays. Overall, the cost of the SLS is more than $20 billion – and because no part of the rocket is reusable, the costs associated with the project are not over.
Nevertheless, Monday’s launch still marks the beginning of what may be the most comprehensive, elaborate era of human space exploration ever. If all goes according to plan, humans could explore reaches of the Moon that have never been touched before. We may be entering a period where the Moon is not only a beautiful, glowing sphere in the sky, but a strong research center like Antarctica, or a way station to other parts of the Solar System, Mars and beyond.
The mission’s main goal is to test Orion and its critical components, such as the heat shield upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and communications systems, before the capsule eventually carries humans later this decade. To get a better idea of how humans might perform in the capsule, NASA put a mannequin inside it. The effigy, named Moonikin Campos after Apollo 13-era electrical engineer Arturo Campos, will be equipped with sensors to measure the radiation, as well as the “vibrations and accelerations” that humans would experience, NASA said.
Orion will reach its initial orbit less than nine minutes after takeoff. The capsule will separate from the core stage approximately two hours after launch, after which the stage will join the solid rocket boosters and go back to sea (no part of the SLS is reusable). During its four- to six-week mission, Orion will travel 280,000 miles from Earth, making a few close flybys of the Moon before splashing down into California’s coastal waters on October 10. It is the farthest spacecraft rated for human use. Traveled according to NASA. Artemis I mission will also submit 10 CubeSats in orbitEach with specific scientific and technical objectives.
The two-hour launch window opens Monday at 8:33 a.m. ET. This is the first time to send a 322-foot-tall rocket and capsule into space. If NASA doesn’t launch the rocket within Monday’s two-hour window, it will have another opportunity on Sept. 2, and another on Sept. 5. If the launch does not take place on one of these three days, the rocket will have to be rolled back for further critical testing of the VAB – including the all-important flight termination system, the series of components that ensure the rocket is carried safely after launch. If necessary – will need to be redone.
The next launch window will begin from September 20 to October 4, with another opportunity from October 17 to October 31.
Following this mission, NASA is aiming to launch Artemis II in 2024. That mission would be crewed. This will be followed by Artemis III in the middle of the decade, which will see a woman and a man of color walking on the Moon. For this final mission, the SpaceX Starship vehicle will carry astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface in a final stage, part of a $2.9 billion contract the company won in April last year.
NASA will be livestreaming the launch from its YouTube channel. Video will begin at 6:30 a.m. EST Monday.