Fifty years ago this month, mission managers at NASA gave the last green light for what could be humanity’s latest mission to the moon. Few realized at the time that it would take more than half a century before NASA was ready to return, not least Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan, who thought that when he returned to the lunar module in December 1972 it was “not so long into the future” That the astronauts were there again.
At 1.04 a.m. EDT (6.04 a.m. GMT) on Wednesday, despite belated technical issues and Florida’s weather gods, the Artemis 1, the most powerful rocket ship 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-meter journey to the moon and back, but the success of the test mission will pave the way for a manned landing effort within four years. Artemis 3, currently scheduled for 2025 but likely one year back, will add a woman’s name to only 12 in history — all men from the Apollo flights between 1969 and 1972 — who are classified as lunar walkers.
“We will return to the Moon in 50 years, to stay, learn to operate, build, and develop new technologies, new systems and new spacecraft in order to go to Mars,” said Bill Nelson, Administrator of NASA, explaining the purpose of the Artemis program in an interview with Newsweek earlier. from this year.
“This is a massive shift in history.”
The space agency is looking for conditions to finally meet for Wednesday’s launch after a series of delays during the summer and early fall. Attempts were called off in August and September after engineers discovered an engine cooling problem, then were unable to fix an unrelated fuel leak.
Launch hopes were thwarted in early October when the threat of Hurricane Ian forced the space agency to return the $4.1 billion Giant Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to a safe place in the hangar.
Some speculated that NASA’s decision to leave Artemis exposed on the Cape Canaveral, Florida, launch pad in recent days amid the wrath of Hurricane Nicole’s 100-mph winds.
That storm led to an additional two-day delay until Wednesday — and a thorough post-hurricane check by engineers at the Kennedy Space Center before it was declared airworthy.
“If we didn’t design it to be there in severe weather, we chose the wrong launch location,” NASA associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development, Jim Frey, said at a Friday news briefing.
Nelson, a former space shuttle astronaut, acknowledged the delay as “part of the space business.”
“We’ll go when we’re ready. We’re not going until then, especially on a test flight. [We’ll] Make sure it’s right before we put four humans on top,” he said after the September rub.
These humans will be aboard Artemis 2, an interim 10-day mission planned for May 2024 that will take astronauts beyond the Moon without landing, and test new life-sustaining systems and equipment designed for long-duration spaceflight.
Artemis 1’s “crew” includes mannequins with sensors called Helga, Zohar and Moonikin Campos, which will measure radiation levels, and soft toy Snoopy and Shaun the Sheep as gravity detectors.
“We’ll never get to Artemis 2 if Artemis 1 doesn’t work,” Frey said.
With the development of technology, so did the reasons for NASA’s desire to return to the surface of the moon again. The agency is looking beyond short Apollo-era exploration visits, and wants to establish a long-term human presence, including building a base camp on the Moon, as the basis for manned missions to Mars by the mid-2030s.
Scientific discovery, economic benefits, building a global alliance, and inspiring a new generation of explorers are among NASA’s stated goals of what it calls the “Generation of Artemis.”
NASA’s Moon-to-Mars vision, of which the Artemis program is one part, has a broader brief to attract international and commercial partners for deep space exploration, including the Elon Musk SpaceX rocket and Starship heavy rocket that could be ready for its first orbital test. Flight as soon as next month.
What has not been stated is the desire to keep the United States ahead of Russia, especially China, in the next era of human spaceflight.
Analysts, including NASA’s Inspector General, see the $93 billion price tag for the Artemis program, including $4.1 billion for each of the first launches, as unsustainable. They note that the budget has already exceeded billions of dollars and is years behind schedule.
But some experts see the strength of political will in Washington, D.C. to keep the Moon to Mars program fully funded, even if Republicans seize the House of Representatives and the country’s string of money from Democrats when the final midterm results approach.
“The supportive coalition is bipartisan, and it relates much more to the interests of the electorate. There is political support there,” said John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
“[But] A lot of things have to happen before the first Mars landing mission becomes possible, and all you can say is, if everything goes as planned, then yes, we will send humans to Mars.”
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