The countdown begins for NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar mission and the maiden flight of the SLS mega-rocket

The countdown began Saturday for the inaugural launch of NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket on Monday on a long-awaited mission to send an unmanned Orion crew capsule around the moon and back.

Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, NASA’s first female launch director, called her team to their stations in Kennedy Space Center’s Firing Room 1 and began the carefully scripted 46-hour, 10-minute countdown to 10 a.m. 23 EDT.

“At the moment we are not working on any major issues,” she told reporters at a pre-flight press conference. “So I’m happy to report that and everything is going according to plan.”

Lightning strikes one of three 600-foot towers protecting Launch Complex 39B at Kennedy Space Center where NASA’s new SLS moon rocket is ready for launch Monday at 8:33 a.m. EDT.

Shortly after the briefing, lightning struck two of the three 600-foot-tall protective towers around the SLS rocket on Launch Pad 39B. The strike prompted a review of the data to ensure that no sensitive power systems were affected, but initial checks indicated the strikes were “low in scale”.

If all goes well, engineers working remotely plan to begin pumping 750,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and hydrogen into the giant SLS rocket’s core stage at 12:18 a.m. EDT Monday, setting the stage for liftoff. at 8:33 a.m., the opening of a two-hour window. Forecasters predict a 70% chance of good weather.

The 42-day unpiloted test flight of the $4.1 billion SLS rocket and Orion crew capsule is a milestone in NASA’s effort to bring astronauts back to the moon’s surface for long-term exploration and to test equipment and procedures needed for multi-year flights to Mars.

“With the launch of Artemis 1 on Monday, NASA is at a historic inflection point, poised to begin the most significant series of science and human exploration missions in more than a generation,” said Bhavya Lal. , NASA associate administrator for technology, policy and strategy.

“We are ensuring that the agency’s architecture for human exploration is grounded in a long-term strategic vision of a sustained American presence on the Moon, Mars, and throughout the solar system.”

But mission chief Mike Sarafin warned: “This is a test flight. We are aware that this is a deliberate stress test of the Orion spacecraft and the Space rocket. Launch System It is a new creation, it is a new rocket and a new spacecraft to send humans to the moon in the very next flight.

“It’s something that hasn’t been done in over 50 years and it’s incredibly difficult. We’ll learn a lot from the test flight of Artemis 1… We understand there’s a lot of excitement about it, but the team is very focused.”

A question mark in the countdown is the condition of a 4-inch liquid hydrogen quick-disconnect fitting that leaked during a practice countdown and refueling test on the 20th June.

The fitting was repaired after the rocket was brought back to NASA’s assembly building. But hydrogen leaks usually don’t show up unless the equipment is exposed to cryogenic temperatures — in this case, minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit — and that won’t happen until refueling gets underway Monday morning. .

If a leak is detected that violates safety standards, the launch will be cleaned. But Blackwell-Thompson said she was confident the switchgear would work normally.

“You don’t really get the full test until you do it in cryogenic conditions,” she said in an interview. “So we think we’ve done everything we can to fix that, and certainly on launch day, as part of our loadout, we’ll know for sure.”

Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson is seen in a file photo at his station in Firing Room 1 at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Control Center.
Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson is seen in a file photo at his station in Firing Room 1 at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Control Center.

NASA/Kim Shiflett

The main objectives of the Artemis 1 mission are to verify the performance of the giant SLS rocket, put the Orion crew capsule through its paces and return it safely to Earth, ensuring that the heat shield 16.5 feet wide the capsule can protect returning astronauts. from the high-velocity heat of re-entry.

An instrumented, space-suited dummy, “Moonikin Campos”, and two artificial female torsos will help scientists measure the deep-space radiation environment, as well as vibrations, sound levels, accelerations, temperatures and crew cabin pressures throughout the mission.

If the flight goes well, NASA will continue with plans to launch four real astronauts on a free-loop return trajectory around the moon in late 2024, followed by a mission to land two astronauts near the south pole of the moon from 2025.

That flight will largely depend on continued congressional funding, the development of new spacesuits for moonwalkers, and SpaceX’s progress in developing a lunar lander based on the design of its futuristic Starship rocket, which hasn’t again flown in space.

NASA officials say they’re optimistic, but it’s not yet clear how realistic the 2025 landing goal might turn out.

“We’re working as if it is. We have to, otherwise it ends up being an open question that we never reach,” said astronaut Randy Bresnik, who added that SpaceX “is also working on this. rhythm”.

“And so it gives a lot of hope that if we’re going to get there, we have the right partner for this first mission,” Bresnik said. “The suits and the Starship, the lunar lander, all go together. We can’t have one without the other. So we’ll have more clarity in the coming months.”

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