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A high-stakes test launch of NASA’s new moon rocket, which has been years in the making and billions of dollars over budget, is scheduled for next week. Fifty years after NASA’s famous Apollo moonshots, a 322-foot (98-meter) rocket will attempt to launch an empty crew capsule into a far lunar orbit.

As early as 2024, NASA plans to land two people on the lunar surface, and if all goes well, astronauts will be strapped in for a lap around the moon. Monday morning at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is when the rocket will take launch. NASA officials warn that the six-week test mission is dangerous and could be shortened if something goes wrong.

We’re going to put it through its paces. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the agency plans to subject the spacecraft to maneuvers that they would never perform with a crew on board in an effort to ensure the astronauts’ safety.

According to the retiring head of the space policy institute at George Washington University, a lot is riding on this test. He pointed out that the ever-increasing costs and lengthy breaks between missions would make a comeback difficult if things went wrong. It’s meant to be the start of a long-term plan to send humans exploring the solar system and beyond “remarked John Logsdon. Will the United States be able to overcome a catastrophic failure and continue moving forward?”

More than $4 billion was spent on this one mission. The total cost of the program from its commencement a decade ago until a lunar landing in 2025 is a staggering $93 billion. The Artemis program, named after Apollo’s mythical sister, is described here.


Rocket Power

The Saturn V rockets that sent 24 Apollo men hurtling to the moon 50 years ago are more bulkier and bulkier in size than the new rocket. Still, it’s more powerful, with 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust. According to Nelson, a less cumbersome name is being considered for the rocket now known as the Space Launch System (SLS). The new rocket, in contrast to the sleek Saturn V, uses a pair of strap-on boosters repurposed from NASA’s space shuttles. After two minutes, much like the shuttle boosters did, the boosters will separate from the rocket, but they won’t be recovered from the Atlantic Ocean. When the core stage finally separates, it will keep firing until it eventually crashes into the Pacific. The Orion spacecraft will be propelled toward the moon by an upper stage two hours following liftoff.

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Orion is one of the brightest constellations in the sky, so it’s fitting that NASA’s high-tech, autonomous Orion spacecraft bears its name. Taller than Apollo’s capsule by 3 meters (11 feet), it can accommodate four astronauts rather than three. The commander’s seat on this test flight will be occupied by a full-size dummy dressed in an orange flying suit fitted with vibration and acceleration sensors. Cosmic radiation is one of the greatest dangers of space travel, so two dummies with female torsos and human-like heads will be used to take readings. Israeli armor is being tried out on one torso. The Orion spacecraft, in contrast to the rocket, has already been launched and completed two orbits of the Earth in 2014. This time around, four wings will be used to attach the service module from the European Space Agency, which will provide propulsion and solar power.


Flight Plan

The Orion mission is designed to last for six weeks, from takeoff in Florida to splashdown in the Pacific. This is twice as long as manned missions in order to put the systems through their paces. Because of its distance of approximately 386 thousand kilometers (or 240,000 miles), getting to the moon will take nearly a week. The spacecraft will do a quick round of the moon before entering a long-distance orbit with a far point 38,000 miles away (61,000 kilometers). Orion will thereafter be further from Earth than Apollo by a distance of 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers). The final splashdown of Orion in the Pacific Ocean at a speed of 25,000 mph (40,000 kph) represents the mission’s ultimate challenge. Reentry temperatures can reach up to about 5,500 degrees Fahrenheit, although the heat shield is made of the same material as the Apollo capsules (2,750 degrees Celsius). However, the cutting-edge design takes into account the increased speed and temperature of future Mars explorers’ returns.

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There are several stowaways on board for deep space research in addition to the three test dummies. Once Orion is speeding toward the moon, ten shoebox-sized satellites will explode. As the flight was delayed for a year, the batteries for half of the so-called CubeSats ran out and couldn’t be replaced. Given the low cost and high danger of these little spacecraft, NASA anticipates that some may fail. The CubeSats designed to measure radiation levels should function normally. A solar sail demonstration aimed at an asteroid is also safe to proceed with. Orion will transport a bolt from one of Apollo 11’s rocket engines, recovered from the ocean a decade ago, as well as a few fragments of moon rock retrieved by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969. NASA reports that neither Aldrin nor any of his Apollo crewmates will be there during the launch, but that Walter Cunningham from Apollo 7, Tom Stafford from Apollo 10, and Harrison Schmitt, the second-to-last man to set foot on the moon, will be there.


Apollo Vs. Artemis

Even now, after more than 50 years, the Apollo program is widely regarded as NASA’s crowning achievement. From the launch of Alan Shepard, NASA’s first astronaut, to the landing of Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon, only eight years passed using technology from the 1960s. Though it was based on the successful but brief Constellation moon exploration mission, Artemis has dragged on for over a decade. From 1969 through 1972, a total of 12 Apollo astronauts set foot on the moon for no more than three days at a stretch. NASA will select Artemis crew members from its varied pool of 42 astronauts, and the mission duration for crews visiting the moon will be increased to at least a week. The plan is to establish a permanent base on the moon so that human missions to Mars can proceed more smoothly. Once Orion has returned to Earth, NASA’s Nelson has promised to announce the first Artemis moon crews.

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What’s Next

A lot more work needs to be done before astronauts can return to the moon. Four astronauts will make a round-the-moon test voyage in 2024 if not sooner. Within the next year or so, NASA plans to launch another four spacecraft, with two of them landing on the lunar south pole. In lieu of a built-in lunar lander as the Apollo spacecraft had, NASA has contracted Elon Musk’s SpaceX to deliver the Starship spaceship for the first Artemis moon landing. There are now two other private firms working on moonwalking suits. The futuristic Starship would dock with Orion on the moon, allowing two people to explore the lunar surface before returning them to their capsule. Starship has only traveled six miles in the air (10 kilometers). Before sending an unmanned spacecraft to the moon, Musk plans to send Starship on a circumlunar flight aboard SpaceX’s Super Heavy Booster. However, before leaving towards the moon, the starship will need to refuel at a station circling the Earth.

The Division of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute provides funding to the Associated Press in order to sustain the Health and Science Department. The Associated Press is solely responsible for the content.

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