CAPE CANAVAL, Fla., Nov. 15 (Reuters) – Ground teams at Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday prepared for the third launch attempt of NASA’s next-generation moon rocket, the first flight for the US space agency’s Artemis lunar program, in 50 years. After the last Apollo mission to the Moon.
The 32-story Space Launch System (SLS) rocket was scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 1:04 a.m. EST (0604 GMT) Wednesday to send its Orion capsule on a 25-day journey around Moon and back without astronauts.
NASA’s flight readiness crews were eager to succeed after 10 weeks of engineering difficulties, two hurricanes, and two trips from the spacecraft hangar to the launch pad.
Two previous launch attempts, on August 29 and September 3, were aborted due to a leaking fuel line and other technical problems that NASA has since resolved. While docked at the launch pad last week, the rocket was hit by high winds and rain from Hurricane Nicole, forcing the flight to be delayed by two days.
Post-storm inspections found 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 little danger at all.
Weather is always a factor outside of NASA’s control. Monday’s latest forecast called for a 90% chance of favorable conditions during Wednesday’s two-hour launch window, according to the US Space Force at Cape Canaveral.
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 shuttle and International Space Station. (fee: https://tmsnrt.rs/3PPRsbN)
Named after the Greek goddess of the hunt — and 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 spaceflights that did not put humans on the moon. But Apollo, born into the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, was less dependent on science than Artemis.
The New Moon program has enlisted commercial partners like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and space agencies in Europe, Canada and Japan to eventually establish a long-term lunar base as a jumping-off point for more ambitious human missions to Mars.
Getting the SLS-Orion spacecraft off Earth is a major first step. Its maiden flight aims to put the 5.75 million-pound craft through its paces on a rigorous test flight, pushing the boundaries of its design to prove the spacecraft is fit to fly for astronauts.
If the mission is successful, a manned Artemis II flight around the moon and back could come as early as 2024, followed in a few more years by the first landing of the program’s astronauts, one of whom is a woman, with Artemis III.
Rated as the world’s most powerful complex rocket, the SLS represents the largest new vertical launch system the US space agency has built since the Apollo-era Saturn V.
Barring last-minute difficulties, the launch countdown should end with the rocket’s four R-25 main engines and twin rocket boosters generating 8.8 million pounds of thrust, sending the spacecraft skyward.
About 90 minutes after liftoff, the rocket’s upper stage will propel Orion out of Earth’s orbit on a 25-day flight path that will take it to within 60 miles of the lunar surface before sailing 40,000 miles (64,374 km) behind the moon and back to Earth. The capsule is expected to splash down in the Pacific Ocean on December 11th.
Although there won’t be any humans on board, Orion will carry a simulated crew of three — one male and two female models — equipped with sensors to measure radiation levels and other stresses that astronauts might encounter in real life.
The mission’s higher goal is to test the durability of Orion’s heat shield during re-entry as it hits Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles (39,429 km) per hour, or 32 times the speed of sound, upon return from lunar orbit — much faster than re-entry capsules returning from the space station. .
The heat shield is designed to withstand the friction of re-entry that is expected to raise temperatures outside the capsule to nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius).
More than a decade in development with years of delays and budget overruns, the SLS-Orion spacecraft has so far cost NASA at least $37 billion, including design, construction, testing and ground facilities. NASA’s Office of Inspector General has projected that total Artemis costs will reach $93 billion by 2025.
NASA defends the program as a boon to space exploration that has created tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in commerce.
(Reporting by Joey Rowlett in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Jerry Doyle)
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