NASA’s long-awaited return to the moon could begin on Aug. 29, and the excitement was hard to miss, even in the sober voices of NASA officials and engineers during a press conference on Wednesday.
“Saturn’s five took us to the moon half a century ago,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Now, as we embark on Artemis’s first test flight, we are reminded of this agency’s past, but our eyes are focused not on the immediate future, but out there.”
Artemis is NASA’s new lunar program, and the next flight on August 29 is dubbed Artemis I. It will be an uncrewed test flight to test NASA’s massive lunar rocket, the Space Launch System, or SLS, and the spacecraft. Orion, which will fly to, around and beyond the Moon before returning to Earth 42 days later.
It’s a mission that will pave the way for Artemis II in spring 2023, a manned lunar flyby, and Artemis III in 2025, which will land humans on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.
“NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon,” Nelson said in his remarks on Wednesday. “In these increasingly complex missions, astronauts will live and work in deep space. And we will develop the science and technology to send the first humans to Mars.”
Nelson and other NASA officials provided an overview of the Artemis I mission and responded to media questions about the upcoming test flight.
The SLS rocket and Orion are currently housed in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, but will be “launched” to launch Complex 39B around Aug. 18, according to NASA Artemis Mission Manager Michael Sarafin.
“This will signal that the launch is near,” he said.
The entire 32-story rocket and launch pad will be positioned over the flame trench at the launch complex until August 27, and tank operations, loading the rocket with liquid hydrogen fuel and liquid oxygen propellant, will begin in the morning. of the 29th of August. If the launch is cancelled, NASA will have follow-up launch windows on September 5 and 6.
If all goes well for launch, the SLS will launch into a plume fire generating 8.8 million pounds of thrust, 15% more powerful than the Saturn V rocket of the 1960s and 1970s, Nelson pointed out.
“The 32-story rocket will go up through the atmosphere and in two minutes all the solid propellant in the boosters will be consumed and discarded, as well as all the liquid fuel in eight minutes and the central stage will be discarded,” Sarafin said. The upper stage of the rocket and Orion will circle the Earth as Orion extends its solar panels to turn off battery power, and if all is well, “At that point, the rocket has done its job and now Orion is moon path.”
Unlike the Apollo missions, which entered an equatorial orbit around the mid-Moon, Artemis 1 will enter a polar orbit, “an elliptical orbit around the moon that is like a clock face facing us.” , said Nelson. . But it won’t stay there and will continue for another 38,000 miles from the Moon.
“Orion will be about 270,275,000 miles from Earth at that point at its farthest point,” Sarafin said. “It will be farther than any human capable spacecraft has ever been.”
All will serve the four main objectives of the Artemis I mission, according to Sarafin.
One objective is to demonstrate that the SLS rocket and Orion can fly safely as intended, another is to collect as much data about the flight as possible. The third is to deploy small satellites to perform science and take images of the mission to share with the public.
The ultimate and most important objective is to test the Orion spacecraft’s heat shield.
“After its long test flight, Orion will return home faster and warmer than any spacecraft before it,” Nelson said. “It will hit Earth’s atmosphere at 32 times the speed of sound,” using friction to drain all the energy transmitted to it by the massive SLS rocket at launch.
It will take about 20 minutes from the peak heating point until Orion slows down enough for its parachutes to open, according to Sarafin. “So it’s going to drop at about 20 miles an hour into the Pacific,” he said. “A US Navy-NASA team will receive the waiting spacecraft and retrieve all data from it.”
NASA will push Artemis I faster and harder than a flight with humans on board, according to Nelson, all in the service of learning as much as possible ahead of the first human missions back to the Moon.
The Artemis program itself is designed as an experimental training ground where NASA can learn all it can about the human technologies and operations needed to go far beyond the Moon on an eventual manned mission to the Red Planet.
“We’re going back to the moon to learn to live and work to survive,” Nelson said. “We’re going to learn how to use the resources on the Moon to be able to build things in the future, as we’re not going a quarter of a million miles away, nor a three-day journey. But millions and millions of miles away, in months and months, if not years of travel.”