March 28, 2023

NASA rocket launch to the moon next week aims to close 50-year gap

Fifty years ago this month, mission managers at the US space agency Nasa gave the final go-ahead for what would prove to be humanity’s latest odyssey to the moon. Few realized at the time that it would be more than half a century before Nasa would be ready to return, not least Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan, whose belief as he returned to the lunar module in December 1972 was that “it wouldn’t be too far in the future’ that the astronauts were there again.

Four minutes past midnight on Wednesday, delayed by technical problems and despite the Florida weather gods, Artemis 1, the most powerful rocket ship in history, will attempt to close that decades-long gap.

There will be no humans in the Orion capsule on its 25-day, 1.3-mile trip to the moon and back, but the success of the test mission will pave the way for a crewed landing attempt within four years. Artemis 3, currently scheduled for 2025 but likely to slip back a year, will add a female name to the only 12 in history — all men from the Apollo flights between 1969 and 1972 — classified as moonwalkers.

“We’re going back to the moon after 50 years, to stay, to learn to work, to create, to develop new technologies and new systems and new spacecraft to go to Mars,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, explaining the purpose of the Artemis program in an interview with Newsweek earlier this year.

“This is a huge turning point in history.”

The space agency is looking for conditions to finally come together for Wednesday’s launch after a series of delays over the summer and early fall. Attempts in August and September were canceled after engineers discovered an engine cooling problem and then were unable to fix an unrelated fuel leak.

Hopes for an early October launch were dashed when the threat of Hurricane Ian forced the space agency to return the giant $4.1 billion Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to the safety of the hangar.

And some second-guessed NASA’s decision to leave Artemis on display at Florida’s Cape Canaveral launch pad in recent days amid the fury of Hurricane Nicole’s 100 mph wind gusts.

That storm led to a further two-day delay until Wednesday — and a thorough post-hurricane inspection by engineers at the Kennedy Space Center before it was declared fit for flight.

“If we didn’t design it to be out there in severe weather, we picked the wrong launch site,” Nasa’s associate administrator for space exploration systems development, Jim Free, said at a press conference on Friday.

Nelson, a former space shuttle astronaut, acknowledged the delays as “part of the space business.”

“We’ll go when it’s ready. We’re not going until then, and especially on a test flight. [We’ll] make sure it’s right before we put four people on top,” he said after the September rub.

Those people will be aboard Artemis 2, a 10-day intermediate mission scheduled for May 2024 that will fly astronauts past the moon without landing, testing new life support systems and equipment designed for long-duration spaceflight.

The “crew” for Artemis 1 includes sensor mannequins named Helga, Zohar and Moonikin Campos, who will measure radiation levels, and a Snoopy and Shaun the Sheep soft toy as gravity probes.

“We’re never going to get to Artemis 2 if Artemis 1 isn’t successful,” Free said.

As technology has evolved, so have Nasa’s reasons for wanting to return to the lunar surface. The agency is looking beyond the short exploratory visits of the Apollo era and wants to establish a long-term human presence, including the construction of a lunar base camp, as a base for crewed 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 for what it calls the “Artemis generation.”

NASA’s Moon to Mars vision, of which the Artemis program is just one part, has a broader brief attracting international and commercial partners in deep space exploration, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the Starship heavy-lift rocket that could be ready for its first orbital test flight next month.

There has been no stated desire to keep the US ahead of Russia, and especially China, in the next era of human spaceflight.

Analysts, including Nasa’s inspector general, see the Artemis program’s $93 billion price tag, including $4.1 billion for each of the first launches, as unsustainable. They note that it is already billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

But some experts see a political will in Washington to keep the Moon to Mars program fully funded even if Republicans win the House and the nation’s purse strings from Democrats when the midterm elections are final.

“The coalition he supports is bipartisan, much more connected to the constitutional interest. There is political support,” said John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

“[But] So many things have to happen before the first mission to land on Mars is possible, that all you can say is, if everything goes as planned, then yes, we will send people to Mars.”

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