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

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Years late and billions over budget, NASA’s new moon rocket is making its debut next week on a high-stakes test flight before astronauts take over.

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

If all goes well, astronauts could strap on as early as 2024 for a moon tour, with NASA aiming to land two people on the lunar surface by the end of 2025.

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

The six-week test flight is risky and could be cut short if it fails, NASA officials warn.

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

The retired founder of the George Washington University Space Policy Institute said a lot was rolling over the essay. Skyrocketing costs and long intervals between missions will mean a tough comeback if things go wrong, he noted.

“It is meant to be the first step in a sustained 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 dysfunction?

The price to pay for this mission alone: ​​more than 4 billion dollars. Add up everything from the program’s inception ten years ago to a lunar landing in 2025, and there’s even more of a shock: $93 billion.

Here’s a look at the first flight of the Artemis program, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister.


The new rocket is shorter and thinner than the Saturn V rockets that launched 24 Apollo astronauts to the moon half a century ago. But it’s more powerful, with a thrust of 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms). It’s called the Space Launch System rocket, SLS for short, but a less clunky name is under discussion, according to Nelson. Unlike the streamlined Saturn V, the new rocket has a pair of strap-on boosters redesigned from NASA’s space shuttles. Boosters will peel off after two minutes, just like shuttle boosters, but will not be fished out of the Atlantic for reuse. The main stage will continue to fire before separating and crashing into the Pacific in pieces. Two hours after liftoff, an upper stage will send the capsule, Orion, hurtling toward the moon.

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NASA’s high-tech automated Orion capsule is named after the constellation, one of the brightest in the night sky. At 11 feet (3 meters) tall, it is more spacious than Apollo’s capsule, seating four astronauts instead of three. For this test flight, a life-size dummy in an orange flight suit will occupy the commander’s seat, equipped with vibration and acceleration sensors. Two other mannequins made of materials simulating human tissue – female heads and torsos, but no limbs – will measure cosmic radiation, one of the greatest risks in spaceflight. A torso tests out a protective vest from Israel. Unlike the rocket, Orion has been launched before, making two laps around the Earth in 2014. This time, the European Space Agency’s service module will be attached for propulsion and solar power via four wings.


Orion’s flight is supposed to take six weeks from takeoff in Florida to landing in the Pacific, twice as long as astronauts travel to tax systems. It will take nearly a week to reach the moon, 240,000 miles (386,000 kilometers) away. After whipping tightly around the moon, the capsule will enter a distant orbit with a distant point 38,000 miles (61,000 kilometers). This will place Orion 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) from Earth, further than Apollo. The big test comes at the end of the mission, as Orion slams into the atmosphere at 25,000 mph (40,000 km/h) en route to a splash in the Pacific. The heat shield uses the same material as the Apollo capsules to withstand re-entry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,750 degrees Celsius). But the advanced design anticipates faster, hotter returns from future Mars crews.


In addition to three test dummies, the flight has a large number of stowaways for deep space research. Ten shoebox-sized satellites will appear once Orion hurtles towards the moon. The problem is that these so-called CubeSats were installed in the rocket a year ago, and the batteries of half of them could not be recharged because the launch kept getting delayed. NASA expects some to fail, given the low-cost, high-risk nature of these mini-satellites. Radiation measurement CubeSats should be OK. Also clear: a demo of a solar sail targeting an asteroid. In a salute to the future, Orion will carry some shards of moon rock collected by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin from Apollo 11 in 1969, and a bolt from one of their rocket engines, recovered from the sea a decade ago. Aldrin is not 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 penultimate man to walk on the moon.


More than 50 years later, Apollo is still NASA’s greatest achievement. Using 1960s technology, NASA took just eight years from the launch of its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, to Armstrong and Aldrin landing on the moon. By contrast, Artemis has already been dragging on for more than a decade, despite the development of the short-lived Constellation lunar exploration program. Twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon from 1969 to 1972, staying there no more than three days at a time. For Artemis, NASA will draw from a diverse pool of astronauts currently numbering 42 and is extending the time crews spend on the moon to at least a week. The goal is to create a long-term lunar presence that will grease the skids to send people to Mars. NASA’s Nelson promises to announce the first Artemis lunar crews once Orion returns to Earth.


There is still a long way to go before astronauts walk on the Moon again. A second test flight will send four astronauts around the moon and back, possibly as early as 2024. About a year later, NASA aims to send four more, two of whom will land at the lunar south pole. Orion doesn’t come with its own lunar lander like the Apollo spacecraft, so NASA contracted Elon Musk’s SpaceX to supply its Starship spacecraft for Artemis’ first moon landing. Two other private companies are developing moonwalking suits. The sci-fi-looking spacecraft would link up with Orion on the moon and take a pair of astronauts to the surface and the capsule for the ride home. So far, Starship has only traveled 10 kilometers. Musk wants to launch Starship around Earth on SpaceX’s Super Heavy Booster before attempting an uncrewed moon landing. One hitch: Starship will need a refuel at a fuel depot in Earth orbit, before heading to the moon.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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