NASA prepares for third Artemis lunar rocket launch attempt

The 32-story Space Launch System (SLS) rocket was scheduled to be lifted on Wednesday at 1:04 a.m. EST (0604 GMT) from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to send the Orion capsule on a 25-day trip around the moon and back without astronauts aboard.

The ready-to-fly NASA crews were eager for success after 10 weeks of technical difficulties, two hurricanes and two trips from the spacecraft’s hangar to the launch pad.

Two previous launch attempts, on August 29 and September 3, were aborted due to leaking fuel lines and other technical issues that NASA has since resolved. When the rocket was on the launch pad last week, it encountered strong winds and rain from Hurricane Nicole, forcing the flight to be delayed for two days.

Inspections after the storm showed that the hurricane had torn a strip of ultra-thin protective sealant from Orion’s exterior, but NASA officials said Monday night that the damage was minor and posed a negligible risk to the launch.

Weather is always a factor beyond NASA’s control. According to Monday’s latest forecast, there is a 90% chance of favorable conditions during Wednesday’s two-hour launch, the US Space Force at Cape Canaveral said.

Called Artemis I, the mission marks the first flight of the SLS rocket and Orion capsule together, built under NASA contracts with Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp, respectively.

It also marks a major change in direction for NASA’s post-Apollo human spaceflight program, after decades of focusing on low-Earth orbit with the space shuttles and the International Space Station. (Graphic: )

SUCCESS TO APOLLO

Named after the Greek goddess of the hunt – and the twin sister of Apollo – Artemis aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface as early as 2025.

Twelve astronauts walked on the moon during six Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972, the only space flights to date to put humans on the lunar surface. But Apollo, born of the US-Soviet space race during the Cold War, was less science-driven than Artemis.

The new lunar program has attracted commercial partners such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the space agencies of Europe, Canada and Japan to eventually establish a long-term lunar base as a springboard for even more ambitious human journeys to Mars.

Getting the SLS-Orion spacecraft off the ground is an important first step. The maiden voyage is intended to put the £5.75 million vehicle through its paces during a rigorous test flight, pushing the limits of its design to prove the spacecraft is fit to carry astronauts.

If the mission is successful, a manned Artemis II flight around the moon and back could take place as early as 2024, followed within a few years by the first lunar landing by astronauts, including a woman, with Artemis III.

Known as the world’s most powerful and complex rocket, the SLS is the largest new vertical launch system built by the US space agency since the Apollo-era Saturn V.

Barring last-minute problems, the launch countdown should end with the ignition of the four R-25 engines and the two solid rocket boosters that produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust and launch the spacecraft into the air.

About 90 minutes after launch, the rocket’s upper stage will propel Orion out of orbit on its way to a 25-day flight that will take it within 60 miles of the moon’s surface before flying 40,000 miles past the moon’s surface. and back to earth. The capsule is expected to crash into the Pacific Ocean on December 11.

While no humans will be on board, Orion will carry a simulated crew of three — one male and two female mannequins — equipped with sensors to measure radiation levels and other stresses that real astronauts would experience.

A key goal of the mission is to test the durability of Orion’s heat shield as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere at 39,429 kilometers per hour, or 32 times the speed of sound.

The heat shield is designed to withstand the friction of re-entry, which is expected to increase the temperature outside the capsule to nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 Celsius).

The SLS-Orion spacecraft has been in development for more than a decade, with years of delays and budget overruns, and has cost NASA at least $37 billion to date, including design, construction, testing and ground facilities. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General has predicted that the total cost of Artemis will reach $93 billion by 2025.

NASA defends the program as a boon for space exploration that has created tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in commerce.

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