Fifty-three years after humans first set foot on the moon, NASA is launching its ambitious Artemis program to get us back there, starting with the launch of a massive new unmanned rocket on Monday.
The Artemis I mission, scheduled for Monday morning, will see the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the second flight of the Orion capsule. It was a long way to the launch pad.
The origin story of the SLS stretches all the way back to 2010 when Congress runs NASA to develop a rocket as a follow-up to the Space Shuttle. If the rocket’s appearance looks familiar — especially the two solid boosters that surround the central liquid hydrogen tank — that’s because it borrowed much of its technology from the shuttle. But even with the rise of private launch companies like SpaceX, which has perfected the art of rocket reusability, NASA, Congress and the defense contractors they hire continue to develop the SLS.
All the while, the project has been mired in cost overruns and technical delays. In total, SLS cost more than $20 billion — and since no part of the rocket is reusable, the costs associated with the project are far from over.
Yet Monday’s launch still marks the beginning of what could be the most extensive, expansive era of human space exploration yet. If all goes according to plan, humans could explore the moon, which has never been touched before. We may be entering a period where the Moon is not just a pretty, glowing orb in the sky, but a stable research station like Antarctica or a way station to other parts of the solar system, to Mars and beyond.
The main purpose of the mission is to test Orion and its critical components, such as the re-entry heat shield and communications systems, before the capsule eventually carries humans later this decade. To get a better idea of how people might fare in the capsule, NASA installed a mannequin inside it. The dummy, named Moonikin Campos after Apollo 13-era electrical engineer Arturo Campos, will be equipped with sensors to measure radiation as well as “vibrations and accelerations” that humans will experience, NASA said.
Orion will reach its initial orbit less than nine minutes after liftoff. The capsule will separate from the main stage about two hours after launch, after which the stage will join the solid rocket boosters to descend back to the ocean (no part of the SLS is reusable). During its four-to-six-week mission, Orion will travel 280,000 miles from Earth, making several close flybys of the moon before splashing down in California’s coastal waters on October 10. It is the farthest spacecraft rated for human use ever traveled, according to NASA. The Artemis I mission will also deposit 10 CubeSats in orbiteach with specific scientific and technical objectives.
The two-hour launch window opens Monday at 8:33 a.m. ET. This is the first of several opportunities to send the 322-foot-tall rocket and capsule into space. If NASA doesn’t launch the rocket within the two-hour window on Monday, it will have another chance on Sept. 2 and another on Sept. 5. If the launch doesn’t happen on any of those three days, the rocket will have to be returned to the VAB and critical tests — including the all-important Flight Termination System, the series of components that ensure the rocket can be safely destroyed after firing if necessary – will have to be done again.
The next launch window will run from September 20th to October 4th, with another opportunity from October 17th to October 31st.
After this mission, NASA aims to launch Artemis II in 2024. This mission will be manned. It will be followed by Artemis III in the middle of the decade, which will see a woman and a person of color walk on the moon. For this final mission, a SpaceX Starship vehicle will carry the astronauts on the final stage from lunar orbit to the surface, part of $2.9 billion contract the company won in April last year.
NASA will stream the launch live on its YouTube channel. The video will begin at 6:30 am EST Monday.