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On the morning of August 29, hours after sunrise, NASA’s giant Space Launch System (SLS) lunar rocket will blast off the Atlantic coast, en route to lunar orbit. On top of the rocket: the Orion astronaut capsule, intended to take humans to the moon for the first time since 1972.

This time there are no people on board. But the mission, dubbed “Artemis I,” will be the first test flight of the shuttle designed to propel us to the stars. Higher than the Statue of Liberty, the 322-meter-long SLS rocket will lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and then circle the dark side of the moon, where no astronaut has flown before. After a 42-day journey, it will splash into the ocean.

Its success could pave the way for the most ambitious lunar expedition in decades. If all goes well, NASA hopes to send people into orbit around the moon by 2024 on its next mission, “Artemis II,” followed by a moon landing on “Artemis III” in 2025 — when boots will set foot on the lunar crust for the for the first time in half a century, including that of the first female astronaut and astronaut of color to do so. (Once in space, the Orion capsule designed by Lockheed Martin will break off from the SLS rocket and meet another spacecraft, designed by SpaceXwhich will lower the astronauts onto the lunar surface.)

But unlike last time, NASA is now looking beyond the moon and even further into the universe. Artemis’ ultimate goal is to build a sustainable outpost on the moon as a stepping stone to one day landing the first humans on Mars.

Named after the moon goddess of ancient Greek mythology, the missions will mark the beginning of a new era, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said during a briefing in early August. “This is the Artemis generation now,” he told the crowd. “We were in the Apollo generation, but this is a new generation, this is a new type of astronaut. And for all of us staring at the moon, dreaming of the day humanity returns to the lunar surface, folks, we’re here. We go back and that journey, our journey, begins with Artemis I.”

Artemis will be transporting precious cargo, even if there are no living beings. Three mannequins will be strapped on board, including Moonikin Campos in the commander’s seat, named after Arturo Campos, a NASA electrical engineer who helped return Apollo 13 safely to Earth after the shuttle’s oxygen tank exploded. The dummies will be dressed in spacesuits and flesh-like soft tissue, equipped to measure radiation levels.

An Amazon Alexa will also be in the cabin to test its ability to respond to mission control questions and verbal commands.

Finally, the crew will feature two beloved members: a plush Snoopy, the cartoon dog creator Charles M. Schulz had drawn as a lunar astronaut in the Apollo days. Snoopy, dressed in an orange spacesuit, will serve as a zero-gravity indicator, determined by when the toy begins to float. A Shaun the Sheep doll, based on the character from the Wallace and Gromit movies, will also make the trek.

The Artemis missions naturally come with a huge price tag. In November, a NASA inspector estimated that the cost could be as much as $93 billion by 2025. (The Apollo missions, in which 12 astronauts walked on the moon between 1969 and 1972, cost about $280 billion in today’s dollars.) But in many ways, the spirit of the program is reminiscent of that of John F. Kennedy. iconic speech in 1962, when America was in the midst of a fierce space race. “Why, say some, the moon?” he asked. “Why choose this as our goal? And they may wonder why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly over the Atlantic Ocean? . . . We’re choosing to go to the moon this decade and do the other things, not because they’re easy, but because they’re hard.”

And in 2022, his immortal words sound as true now as they did long ago: “For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon, and to the planets beyond, and we have sworn we shall not see it ruled by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have sworn that we will not see a space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.”

Look at NASAs launch live on his websiteapp and Youtube Channel. The celebrations include musical performances by singer Josh Groban, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as performances by actors Jack Black, Chris Evans and Keke Palmer.


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