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NASA is once again counting down the clocks until the first flight test of its new 32-story Artemis rocket, which the agency hopes will carry astronauts to the Moon in just a few years.
The space agency has been struggling to get the multibillion-dollar rocket off the ground so it can send a capsule — without a crew on board — around the moon and back, allowing managers to conduct crucial tests of its systems. Lift-off is now targeting a two-hour window that opens at 1:04 a.m. EST, Wednesday, November 16, and the weather at the Florida launch site looks promising.
“The countdown so far is going very well and we’re on schedule,” Jeremy Parsons, deputy director of the Ground Exploration Systems Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, told reporters Monday night.
The successful launch will be a major milestone for NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to put the first woman and first person of color on the moon. The agency has not launched a spacecraft designed to send astronauts to the moon since 1972.
The initial launch attempt of the Artemis rocket, in August, was canceled due to an engine sensor failure. Then, a hydrogen fuel leak required the agency to make repairs. Then, Hurricane Ian rolled in and forced the missile to retreat into its hangar, which Parsons called “a bit of a letdown.”
Once the massive rocket was back at its launch pad on the Florida coast, it was hit by Hurricane Nicole, which proved stronger than officials expected.
Mission managers spent a lot of time discussing the damage to a thin strip of caulking material that fills a small gap at the top of the rocket, where the Orion crew capsule is located. Some of these materials are torn, and they are too high to be repaired.
One concern was that more pieces might dislodge during takeoff and strike other parts of the missile. But NASA’s Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager, says engineers have analyzed the situation extensively and feel it’s OK to fly.
“We went through that day and closed that clause,” Sarafin told reporters during a conference call on Monday. “I asked if there were any opposing opinions, and there weren’t, and we accepted that logic of the trip.”
Because Team Artemis has persevered through all of these recent setbacks, he says, “It gives me comfort because we’ll be ready when it’s time to fly.”
“It’s our time,” Sarafin says. “Hopefully it’s Wednesday.” “But if Wednesday isn’t the right day, we’ll have that next hurdle, that next trial, and we’ll persevere.”
Some spaceflight experts have criticized NASA’s new rocket, saying it’s too expensive to sustain — the first three flights are expected to cost more than $4 billion each.
And this missile won’t fly very far. The next trip, to send astronauts around the moon, won’t happen for another two years. The moon landing won’t happen until 2025 at the earliest.
But building this massive rocket has been a major focus of NASA’s human spaceflight program since it stopped flying the space shuttles in 2011.
To focus on the moon and deep space, the agency has offloaded routine flights to the International Space Station to commercial service providers. Operated by the private company SpaceX, founded by wealthy businessman Elon Musk, space capsules transported cargo and served as space taxis for astronauts.
NASA has chosen SpaceX to build a lunar lander that will take astronauts from a capsule in lunar orbit to the surface. SpaceX also has a large rocket in development called the Starship, which is designed to be reusable and less expensive than NASA’s Artemis rocket.
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