Explainer: NASA tests new moon rocket, 50 years after Apollo

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) – After years of delays and budget increases in the billions, next week NASA’s new moon rocket will begin a high-stakes test flight before astronauts climb to the top.

The 322-foot (98-meter) rocket will attempt to send an empty crew capsule into long-range lunar orbit, 50 years after NASA’s famous Apollo launch.

If all goes well, astronauts could circle the moon as soon as 2024, with NASA aiming to land two people on the moon by the end of 2025.

Liftoff is set Monday morning from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

NASA officials warn that the six-week test flight is risky and could be cut short if something fails.

“We’re going to focus on it and test it. We’re going to do things we would never do with a crew on board in order to try to make it as safe as possible,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The retired founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University said a lot is riding on this pilot. He noted that escalating costs and long gaps between missions would lead to a difficult comeback if things went south.

“It’s supposed to be the first step in a sustainable program of human exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond,” said John Logsdon. Will the United States have the will to move forward in the face of a major disruption?

The price for this one mission: more than $4 billion. Add everything from the start of the program a decade ago to landing on the moon in 2025, and there’s one more sticky shock: $93 billion.

Here’s a summary of the first flight of the Artemis program, named after the legendary twin sister of Apollo.

missile force

The new rocket is shorter and thinner than the Saturn 5 rockets that threw 24 Apollo astronauts on the moon half a century ago. But it’s stronger, packing 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust. It’s called the Space Launch System rocket, SLS for short, but a less obvious name is still being discussed, according to Nelson. Unlike the simplified Saturn V, the new rocket contains a pair of belt boosters reconfigured from NASA’s space shuttles. The boosters will separate after two minutes, just as the shuttle’s boosters did, but they won’t be caught from the Atlantic Ocean for reuse. The primary stage will continue to shoot before separating and crashing into the Pacific Ocean in pieces. Two hours after liftoff, the upper stage will send the capsule, Orion, to the moon.

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the moon

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NASA’s high-tech robotic Orion capsule is named after the constellation, among the brightest of the night sky. At 11 feet (3 meters) tall, it’s more spacious than the Apollo capsule, where four astronauts are seated instead of three. For this test flight, a full-size dummy in an orange flight suit will occupy the pilot’s seat, complete with vibration and acceleration sensors. Two other mannequins made of a material that mimics human tissue — the female head and torso, but no limbs — will measure cosmic radiation, one of the biggest dangers of space flight. One of the trunks is testing a windbreaker from Israel. Unlike the rocket, Orion has been launched before, making two orbits around Earth in 2014. This time around, the European Space Agency’s solar and propulsion service module will be connected via four wings.

flight plan

Orion’s flight is supposed to take six weeks from takeoff in Florida to Pacific Flight, twice as long as astronauts’ flights in order to tax the systems. It would take nearly a week to reach the moon, 240,000 miles (386,000 km) away. After orbiting the Moon, the capsule will enter a distant orbit 38,000 miles (61,000 km) away. That would put Orion 280,000 miles (450,000 km) from Earth, farther than Apollo. The big test comes at the end of the mission, as Orion hits the atmosphere at 25,000 miles per hour (40,000 km/h) on its way to a Pacific Ocean flight. The heat shield uses the same material as the Apollo capsules to withstand return temperatures of 5,000°F (2750°C). But the advanced design predicts future Mars crews will return faster and hotter.

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Besides three experimental dummies, the flight contains a large number of stowaways for deep space research. Ten shoebox-sized satellites will blast off once Orion blasts toward the moon. The problem is that these so-called satellites were installed in the rocket a year ago, and the batteries can’t be recharged for half of them as the launch continues to be delayed. NASA expects some to fail, given the low-cost, high-risk nature of these small satellites. CubeSats for radiation measurement should be fine. Also clear: A demonstration of a solar sail targeting an asteroid. In a tribute to Back to the Future, Orion will carry a few shards of moon rock that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin collected on Apollo 11 in 1969, and screws from one of its rocket engines, which were salvaged from the sea ten years ago. Aldrin won’t be attending the launch, according to NASA, but three of his former colleagues will be there: Walter Cunningham of Apollo 7, Tom Stafford of Apollo 10, and Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17, the next man. To walk on the moon.

Apollo vs. Artemis

More than 50 years later, Apollo is still NASA’s greatest achievement. Using 1960s technology, it took NASA only eight years before its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, was launched, and Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon. By contrast, Artemis has actually lasted for more than a decade, despite building on Constellation’s short-lived lunar exploration programme. Twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the Moon from 1969 until 1972, staying no more than three days at a time. For Artemis, NASA will draw on a diverse group of astronauts currently numbering 42 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 would lubricate sleds to send people to Mars. NASA’s Nelson promises to announce the first crews of the Artemis satellite once Orion returns to Earth.

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What’s Next

There is a lot to do before astronauts step on the moon again. A second test flight will send four astronauts around the Moon and back, possibly as early as 2024. A year or so later, NASA aims to send four more astronauts, with two of them landing at the Moon’s south pole. Orion doesn’t come with a lunar lander like the Apollo spacecraft did, so NASA hired Elon Musk to supply the Starship spacecraft with its first lunar landing. Two other private companies are developing suits for walking on the moon’s surface. The science-looking spacecraft will link up with Orion on the Moon and take a pair of astronauts to the surface and back to the capsule to go home. So far, the Starship has only flown six miles (10 kilometers). Musk wants to launch the Starship around Earth on SpaceX’s Super Heavy Booster before attempting to land on the moon without a crew. One hitch: The spacecraft will need to be filled into an Earth-orbiting fuel depot, before heading to the Moon.


The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Division of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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