Fifty-three years after humans first walked on the moon, NASA is kicking off its ambitious Artemis program to get us back there, starting with an unmanned launch of a massive new 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’s been a long road to the launch pad.
The origin story of SLS goes all the way back to 2010, when Congress directed NASA to develop a rocket as a sequel to the space shuttle. If the rocket’s appearance looks familiar — particularly the two solid boosters flanking the central liquid hydrogen tank — it’s because it borrows much of its technology from the shuttle. But even with the rise of private launch companies like SpaceX, which have perfected the art of rocket reusability, NASA, Congress and the defense contractors they hired continued to develop SLS.
Throughout the project, the project has been embroiled in cost overruns and technical delays. In total, SLS has cost more than $20 billion — and because no part of the rocket is reusable, the costs associated with the project are far from over.
Still, Monday’s launch still marks the beginning of what could be the most expansive, expansive era of human space exploration yet. If all goes according to plan, humans will be able to explore parts of the moon that have never been touched before. We could be entering a period when the moon is not only a beautiful glowing sphere in the sky, but also a robust 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 Earth’s reentry heat shield and communications systems, before the capsule will finally carry humans later this decade. To get a better idea of how people are doing inside the capsule, NASA put a mannequin inside. The mannequin, named Moonikin Campos after an Apollo 13-era electrical engineer Arturo Campus, will be equipped with sensors to measure radiation, as well as “vibrations and accelerations” that humans will experience, NASA said.
The Orion will return to its original orbit less than nine minutes after takeoff. The capsule will detach from the core trap approximately two hours after launch, after which the trap will join the solid rocket boosters to splash back to the ocean (no part of SLS is reusable). Over the course of its four- to six-week mission, Orion will travel 280,000 miles from Earth, making a handful of close flybys of the moon before crashing into California’s coastal waters on Oct. 10. It’s the farthest a spacecraft classified for human use has ever traveled, according to NASA. The Artemis I mission will also be deposited 10 CubeSats in orbiteach with specific scientific and technical objectives.
What is next
The two-hour launch window opens Monday at 8:33 a.m. ET. It is the first of a handful of possibilities to send the 322-meter-high rocket and capsule into space. If NASA doesn’t launch the rocket within two hours of Monday, it will have another chance on September 2 and another chance on September 5. If a launch does not occur on any of these three days, the missile must be returned to VAB and critical testing – including the all-important Flight Termination System, the set of components that ensure the missile can be safely destroyed after launch if necessary – will have to be performed again.
The next launch period would start from September 20 to October 4, with yet another possibility from October 17 to October 31.
After this mission, NASA aims to launch Artemis II in 2024. That mission would be manned. It would be followed by Artemis III in the middle of the decade, who would see a woman and a person of color walking on the moon. For this latest mission, a SpaceX Starship vehicle would bring astronauts the last leg of the lunar orbit to the surface, part of a $2.9 billion contract the company won last April.
NASA will livestream the launch from its YouTube channel. The video kicks off Monday at 6:30 a.m. EST.