What you need to know about SLS, Orion

NASA plans to launch the Artemis I mission Monday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, sending the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule on a more than month-long journey around the moon. —

The uncrewed launch marks the debut of the most powerful rocket ever assembled and kicks off NASA’s long-awaited return to the surface of the moon. It is the first mission of NASA’s Artemis lunar program, which is expected to land the agency’s astronauts on the Moon on its third mission in 2025.

Although Artemis I will not carry astronauts or land on the moon, the mission is key to demonstrating that NASA’s monster rocket and space capsule can deliver the promised capabilities. Artemis I was delayed for years, with the program running over budget by billions.

NASA’s Artemis I Moon rocket rolls out to Launch Pad Complex 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on August 16, 2022.

Chandan Khanna | AFP | Getty Images

The Artemis I mission represents a crucial turning point in NASA’s lunar plans.

Despite delays and absorbing much of NASA’s relatively small budget by federal agency standards, the Artemis program enjoyed strong bipartisan political support.

In 2012, officials estimated the SLS rocket would cost $6 billion to develop, debut in 2017 and carry a price tag of $500 million per launch. But the rocket has only just made its debut, its development having cost more than 20 billion dollars, and its price per launch jumped to $4.1 billion.

NASA’s inspector general, its internal auditor, said earlier this year that Artemis is not the “sustainable” lunar program that agency officials say it is. The watchdog found that more than $40 billion has already been spent on the program and NASA is expected to spend $93 billion on the effort through 2025 – when the first landing is scheduled.

But even that 2025 date is uncertain, according to NASA’s inspector general, who said the development technologies needed to land on the moon’s surface are unlikely to be ready until 2026, at the earliest.

NASA’s Artemis plan also hinges on the success of another monster rocket: SpaceX’s Starship. Last year, the agency awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to develop a moon-specific version of the rocket to serve as a crewed lunar lander for the Artemis III mission.

SpaceX began seriously testing its Starship spacecraft in 2019, but it the rocket has not yet reached orbit.

A host of aerospace contractors across the United States support NASA’s Artemis I hardware, infrastructure and software – Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Jacobs lead the effort. According to NASA, the Artemis program supports approximately 70,000 jobs across the country.

Several NASA centers are also involved, beyond Kennedy as the launch site – including DC headquarters, Marshall in Alabama, Stennis in Mississippi, Ames in California and Langley in Virginia.

In the event that technical issues or weather conditions delay the August 29 launch attempt, NASA has backup launch dates scheduled for September 2 and 5.

Here’s what you need to know about the launch:

The rocket: SLS

NASA’s SLS mega moon rocket topped with the Orion spacecraft exits the Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building en route to launch Complex 39B for a launch rehearsal March 17, 2022 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Paul Hennessey | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Standing as tall as a skyscraper at 322 feet tall, the SLS rocket is a complex vehicle built on technologies used and improved by NASA’s Space Shuttle and Apollo programs.

Fully fueled, the SLS weighs 5.7 million pounds and produces up to 8.8 million pounds of thrust, 15% more than the Saturn V rockets of the last century. SLS uses four liquid-fueled RS-25 engines, which flew on the Space Shuttle before being refurbished and upgraded, and a pair of solid rocket boosters.

The central stage of SLS gets its orange color from the thermal protection system that covers it, which is a spray foam insulation. For the first three Artemis missions, NASA uses a variant of SLS known as Block 1. For later missions, NASA plans to deploy an even more powerful variant, known as Block 1B.

The capsule: Orion

NASA’s Orion spacecraft

Source: NASA

NASA’s Orion capsule can carry four astronauts on missions for up to 21 days without docking with another spacecraft. At its heart is the crew module, which is designed to endure the harsh conditions of deep space flight.

After launch, Orion is powered and propelled by the European Service Module, which was built by the European Space Agency and contractor Airbus.

For Artemis I, there will be three mannequins inside the Orion capsule to collect data through sensors on what the astronauts will experience on the journey to and from the moon. The return to Earth will be particularly crucial, as Orion will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at around 25,000 miles per hour. A heat shield protects Orion’s exterior, and a set of parachutes will slow it down for a splash landing in the ocean

The mission around the moon

NASA’s Artemis I Moon rocket sits at Launch Pad Complex 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on June 15, 2022.

Eva Marie Uzcategui | AFP | Getty Images

Artemis I will cover approximately 1.3 million kilometers in 42 days, in several phases. After separating from SLS, the capsule will deploy solar arrays and begin a multi-day journey to the moon – departing from Earth orbit in what is called a “trans-lunar injection”.

NASA plans to fly Orion 60 miles above the moon’s surface, before moving into a wide orbit around the lunar body. To return, Orion will use the moon’s gravity to help set a trajectory back into Earth’s orbit.

Orion is set to dive into the Pacific Ocean – off San Diego, Calif. – where a team of NASA and Department of Defense personnel will recover the capsule.

In addition to the mannequins aboard Orion, Artemis I carries several payloads such as cube satellites, technology demonstrations, and scientific investigations.

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