Fifty years ago this month, mission managers at the US space agency Nasa gave the go-ahead for what would turn out to be humanity’s most recent odyssey to the moon. Few knew at the time that it would take more than half a century before NASA was ready to return, including Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan, whose belief when he returned to the lunar module in December 1972, was that it would not be “too far in the future” that the astronauts were there again.
At 1:04 a.m. EST (6:04 GMT) on Wednesday, despite late technical glitches and Florida’s weather gods, Artemis 1, the most powerful rocket in history, will attempt to bridge that decades-long gap.
There will be no humans aboard the Orion capsule on its 25-day, 1.3-mile journey to the moon and back, but the success of the test mission will pave the way for a resurgent effort. crewed landing within four years. Artemis 3, currently scheduled for 2025 but likely to be pushed back a year, will add a woman’s name to the only 12 in history – all men on Apollo flights between 1969 and 1972 – who rank among moonwalkers.
“We are going back to the Moon after 50 years, to stay there, to learn how to work, to create, to develop new technologies and new systems and new spacecraft in order to go to Mars,” said the administrator of NASA’s Bill Nelson explaining the purpose of the Artemis program in an interview with Newsweek earlier this year.
“It’s a great turning point in history.”
The space agency is looking for conditions to finally come together for Wednesday’s launch after a series of delays throughout the summer and early fall. Attempts in August and September were abandoned after engineers discovered an engine cooling problem and then were unable to fix an unrelated fuel leak.
Hopes of an early October launch were dashed when the threat of Hurricane Ian forced the space agency to bring the giant $4.1 billion Space Launch System (SLS) rocket back to hangar safety .
And Nasa’s decision to leave Artemis on display at its Cape Canaveral, Florida launch pad for the past few days amid the fury of Hurricane Nicole’s 100mph wind gusts.
That storm prompted another two-day delay to Wednesday — and a thorough post-hurricane inspection by Kennedy Space Center engineers before it was declared fit to fly.
“If we didn’t design it to be out there in bad weather, we picked the wrong launch point,” NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Jim Free said during the interview. from a press briefing on Friday.
Nelson, a former Space Shuttle astronaut, acknowledged that the delays were “part of the space industry”.
“We will leave when it is ready. We don’t go that far, and especially on a test flight. [We’ll] make sure it’s right before you put four humans on top,” he said after the September brush.
These humans will be aboard Artemis 2, a 10-day interim mission scheduled for May 2024 that will carry astronauts beyond the moon without landing, testing new life-sustaining systems and equipment designed for spaceflight from long duration.
Artemis 1’s “crew” includes sensor-equipped dummies called Helga, Zohar, and Moonikin Campos, which will measure radiation levels, and plush Snoopy and Shaun the Sheep as gravity sensors.
“We’ll never get to Artemis 2 if Artemis 1 doesn’t succeed,” Free said.
As technology has evolved, so have NASA’s reasons for wanting to be back on the lunar surface. The agency is looking beyond brief Apollo-era exploration visits and wants to establish a long-term human presence, including the construction of a lunar base camp, as a base for crewed missions to Mars d here the mid-2030s.
Scientific discovery, economic benefits, building a global alliance, and inspiring a new generation of explorers are among NASA’s stated goals for what it calls the “Artemis Generation.”
Nasa’s Moon to Mars vision, of which the Artemis program is just a part, has a broader mandate to attract international and commercial partners to deep space exploration, including Elon’s SpaceX Musk and the heavy Starship rocket that could be ready for its first orbital test flight as early as next month.
The unstated desire to keep the United States ahead of Russia, and particularly China, in the next era of manned spaceflight.
Analysts, including NASA’s own inspector general, consider the $93 billion price tag for the Artemis program, including $4.1 billion for each of the first launches, to be unsustainable. They note that there are already billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.
But some experts see political will in Washington DC to keep the Moon to Mars program fully funded, even if Republicans seize the House and the nation’s purse strings from Democrats when the final results of the midterm elections are known. .
“The coalition in favor is bipartisan, much more linked to the interests of voters. There is political support,” said George Washington University Space Policy Institute founder John Logsdon.
“[But] so much has to happen before the first Mars landing mission is feasible that all you can say is if all goes as planned then yes we will be sending humans to Mars.
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