NASA prepares for the 3rd test launch of the Artemis I mega rocket, marking a new era of lunar exploration

NASA prepares for the 3rd test launch of the Artemis I mega rocket, marking a new era of lunar exploration

NASA is preparing to launch its mega lunar rocket early Wednesday, marking the third launch attempt of a long-delayed vehicle that has weathered the whims of politicians, rocket technical hurdles and, most recently, hurricane gusts Nicole.

This uncrewed launch is the first of three missions designed to return astronauts to the moon. And while it lacks the Cold War-era tensions of NASA’s first lunar program, there’s still an undercurrent of competition.

This time with China.

“I always said we were in a space race,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told “Meet the Press” in August. “We want to get to the south pole of the moon where the resources are… And we don’t want China to suddenly go there and say, ‘This is our exclusive territory.'”

NASA uses the Space Launch System rocket to propel an Orion spacecraft on a 25-day mission around the moon. The two-hour launch window from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center opens Wednesday at 12:04 a.m. CST, with a backup launch available Nov. 19.

This flight test, dubbed Artemis I, will be the first time the Space Launch System and Orion will fly together. The vehicles have been in production for over a decade and are over budget by billions of dollars.

Previous launch attempts on August 29 and September 3 were thwarted by technical issues. Then the rocket was hidden inside an assembly building before Hurricane Ian hit Florida on September 28 as a Category 4 storm.

Hurricane Nicole landed on Thursday and the rocket remained on the launch pad as storm gusts of up to 82mph moved through the area. NASA said it will have to carry out “minor repairs” and a press conference was scheduled for Friday afternoon.

The Artemis I mission is NASA’s first step toward a more inclusive and permanent era of lunar exploration. It will be followed by a crewed mission around the moon.

Then in 2025, the first woman and person of color is expected to land on the lunar surface. Subsequent missions would use the moon to test technologies that could bring humanity to Mars.

“We’re going back to the moon, so how can you not be excited?” asked Debbie Korth, Johnson Space Center’s deputy program director for Orion. “It’s not just about going and coming home. It is a sustained presence. It also expands access.

And, of course, it’s about remaining a leader in human spaceflight.

“We’re ahead, but we want to keep our accelerating pace going,” said Lori Garver, former NASA assistant administrator and author of “Escaping Gravity,” her first-hand account of a time of change at NASA. .

“Great nations must do great things and exploring with humans beyond the limits of the Earth is a glorious thing to do,” she said.

rocket policy

But this new era of exploration includes parts and drawings of space shuttles from the past, a reminder that this is the product of 18 years of checkerboard politics and four presidents.

Plans for this rocket surfaced in 2004 when President George W. Bush announced that NASA would retire the space shuttle and unveiled plans to return to the moon.

President Barack Obama canceled the moonshot in 2010. But Congress, worried about mass layoffs, rejected Obama’s cancellation and drafted authorization legislation that saved the lunar program’s spacecraft and heavy rocket. “Wherever possible,” the agency was instructed to use existing contracts and staff.

As such, the Artemis I mission has four RS-25 engines in the rocket’s core stage that have previously flown shuttle missions (they have been upgraded).

These types of decisions saved jobs and were supposed to keep development costs low.

But lower upfront costs don’t necessarily mean a cheaper program, said Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit that seeks to engage more people in space. This shifts costs to future operations, as NASA engineers spend time and money solving problems rather than inventing new technologies.

For example, RS-25 engines require liquid hydrogen. Hydrogen tends to leak, but the moon rocket had to use this fuel if it wanted to use the RS-25 engines.

In the end, the rocket is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. This is partly due to a political whiplash, as Obama decided that the vehicles should go to an asteroid or Mars; then President Donald Trump chose the moon.

It can be difficult to determine precise figures for NASA expenditures. It varies according to different accounting practices.

The NASA Inspector General’s Office projected that NASA would spend $93 billion on Artemis efforts between fiscal years 2012 and 2025. This includes money spent on spacesuits, the Gateway outpost that would orbit the moon and other NASA initiatives to support lunar exploration.

Each launch of the Space Launch System and Orion is expected to cost $4.1 billion, according to the OIG. This includes the costs of producing the rocket, spacecraft, and ground operations, but it does not include the billions spent developing these systems or the money spent on other projects.

For Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator during the drafting of the 2010 licensing law, these delays and cost overruns confirmed her fears – she didn’t believe NASA could deliver a rocket with the costs and schedule. originally planned.

“I’m sad that I was right,” Garver said.

She wanted future launchers to be owned and operated by fast-paced, budget-conscious commercial companies. SpaceX has been transporting astronauts to the International Space Station since 2020.

In fact, SpaceX was founded in 2002 and has successfully developed and launched the Falcon 9 rocket, Falcon Heavy rocket, and Crew Dragon spacecraft. He is currently developing the Super Heavy rocket and the Starship spacecraft.

“That gives you an idea of ​​how long it takes to deploy (new vehicles),” said Phil Smith, space industry analyst at analytics and engineering firm BryceTech. “During this period, we did not see the launch of SLS or Orion with the crew.”

The rise of China

China has also used this time to increase its space awareness.

The country has landed a rover on the far side of the moon, placed another rover on Mars, and hosted taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) on a Chinese space station circling the Earth.

He intends to send humans to the moon, but many are hesitant to call him a race.

“We’ve already landed on the moon,” said Victoria Samson, director of the Washington office of the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on space sustainability.

Dreier said China has not indicated it is trying to reach the moon before the next group of American astronauts. And there’s no tactical military advantage to being on the moon. It is too far.

US military reports have identified China as a threat in low Earth orbit, where the country could target US satellites or create unnecessary debris. But China’s civilian space program doesn’t seem aggressive, Dreier said.

Still, experts agree that the country – or coalition of countries – that travels to the Moon next will create the rules for deep space exploration.

“What we’re competing on is really who sets the standards for behavior,” said Todd Harrison, managing director of Metrea Strategic Insights, a national security strategy and policy analysis group. “The de facto practices for how things will work in deep space.”

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, for example, prohibits countries from owning territory on the moon or any other celestial body. But it’s unclear whether countries can own resources collected on the moon. NASA and its allies who signed the Artemis Accords would like countries and companies to be able to own rocks, water and other resources mined from the moon. It would be like keeping a fish caught in international waters.

China might want a different resource policy, Harrison said.

And as NASA Administrator Nelson alluded to, China’s lunar activities would become a concern if the country traveled to the South Pole and prevented other nations from exploiting the frozen water that would lie in the craters. dark of the moon. Water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen and then transformed into liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for rocket propellant. It might be cheaper to make the propellant needed for trips home than to ferry it to the Moon from Earth.

But the moon is big, Dreier said, and there should be enough space for both countries at the South Pole.

“The symbolism, I think, is what’s at stake rather than any direct conflict over the moon,” he said.


But first, NASA needs to get its moon rocket off the ground. And that effort has been thwarted in recent months.

The first launch attempt on August 29 was canceled because NASA was unsure if one of its rocket engines was at the right temperature to handle super cold propellant. Liquid oxygen is maintained at minus 297 degrees Fahrenheit and liquid hydrogen is maintained at minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit. Hydrogen leaks were also a problem.

The September 3 launch attempt was canceled due to a liquid hydrogen leak.

When Artemis I is finally launched, the Space Launch System will become the most powerful rocket in the world. And the Orion spacecraft’s 40,000-mile journey beyond the moon will be the farthest any spacecraft built for humans has flown.

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