CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA is kicking off its new moon program with a test flight of a brand new rocket and capsule.
The launch was scheduled for early Wednesday morning from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The test flight aims to send an empty crew capsule into distant lunar orbit, 50 years after NASA’s famous Apollo moonshots.
The project is years late and billions over budget. The price tag for the test flight: over $4 billion.
An overview of the new rocket and capsule, part of NASA’s Artemis program, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister:
At 98 meters tall, the new rocket is shorter and slimmer than the Saturn V rockets that hurled 24 Apollo astronauts to the moon half a century ago. But it’s mightier, with a thrust of 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms). It’s called the Space Launch System rocket, SLS for short, though a less awkward name is up for debate. Unlike the streamlined Saturn V, the new rocket has a pair of side boosters converted from NASA’s space shuttles. The boosters release after two minutes, just like the shuttle boosters. The core stage continues to fire before crashing into the Pacific Ocean. Less than two hours after launch, an upper stage sends the Orion capsule toward the moon.
NASA’s high-tech, automated Orion capsule is named after the constellation, one of the brightest in the night sky. With a height of 3 meters, it is more spacious than the Apollo capsule and can accommodate four astronauts instead of three. For the test flight, a full-size dummy in an orange flight suit takes the commander’s seat, equipped with vibration and acceleration sensors. Two other mannequins made of materials that mimic human tissue – heads and female torsos, but no limbs – measure cosmic rays, one of the greatest risks of spaceflight. Unlike the rocket, the Orion has been launched before and made two rounds around the earth in 2014. For the test flight, the European Space Agency service module was attached via four wings for propulsion and solar power.
Orion’s flight is expected to take 25 days from launch in Florida to landing in the Pacific Ocean, about the same as astronaut travel. It takes nearly a week to reach the moon, 386,000 kilometers away. After whipping close around the moon, the capsule enters a distant orbit with a distant point of 38,000 miles (61,000 kilometers). That puts Orion 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) from Earth, farther than Apollo. The big test comes at the end of the mission, when Orion hits the atmosphere at 25,000 mph (40,000 km/h) on its way to landing in the Pacific Ocean. The heat shield uses the same material as the Apollo capsules to withstand reentry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,750 degrees Celsius). But the advanced design anticipates the faster, hotter return of future Mars crews.
In addition to three test dummies, the test flight includes a whole series of stowaways for deep space research. Ten shoebox-sized satellites pop out as Orion hurtles toward the moon. NASA expects some to fail, given the low-cost, high-risk nature of these mini-satellites. As a salute back to the future, Orion carries a few bits of moon rock collected by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969, and a bolt from one of their rocket engines, salvaged from the sea a decade ago.
APOLLO VS. ARTEMIS
More than 50 years later, Apollo is still NASA’s greatest achievement. Using 1960s technology, it took NASA just eight years to launch its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, and land Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. Artemis, on the other hand, has been dragging along for more than a decade, despite building on the short-lived Constellation lunar exploration program. Twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon from 1969 to 1972, staying no more than three days at a time. For Artemis, NASA will draw on a diverse pool of astronauts and extend the time crews spend on the moon to at least a week. The goal is to create a long-term lunar presence that will lubricate the skids to send humans to Mars.
There’s still a lot to do before astronauts step back on the moon. A second test flight will send four astronauts around the moon and back, perhaps as early as 2024. About a year later, NASA plans to send four more up, two of which will hit the south pole of the moon. Orion isn’t coming with its own lunar lander like the Apollo spacecraft did, so NASA hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to provide its Starship spacecraft for the first Artemis moon landing. Two other private companies develop moonwalking suits. The sci-fi looking starship would connect to Orion on the moon and take a few astronauts to the surface and back to the capsule for the ride home. So far, Starship has only ascended 10 kilometers.
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