NASA is finally set to launch the Artemis I rocket in the first step to return humans to the moon.
Mission managers said Wednesday it was targeting three potential launch days from Kennedy Space Center in a window from Aug. 29-Sept 5. The announcement came on the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
“Launch day is going to be here before we know it,” said Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis mission manager.
The first potential liftoff is Aug. 29 with a two-hour window that opens at 8:33 a.m. The mission would last 42 days sending the Orion capsule to an orbit around the moon with a return to Earth on Oct. 10.
The second potential launch day is Sept. 2 with a two-hour window that opens at 12:48 p.m. on a 39-day mission landing on Oct. 11.
The third potential launch day is Sept. 5 with a 90-minute window that opens at 5:12 p.m. on a 42-day mission that would land on Oct. 17.
“We think we’re on a good path to get to attempts on those dates,” said Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate. “Of course, it’s a first time we’re trying to launch this vehicle, so I heard the deputy administrator (and former astronaut Pam Melroy) today say she used to tell her family when they wanted to come for her launch, plan a seven-day vacation to Florida and you might see a launch in there, too.”
Mission managers said they’re looking at Aug. 18 for the 4.4-mile rollout from the Vehicle Assembly Building of the 5.75 million-pound, 322-foot-tall combination of the Space Launch System, Orion capsule and mobile launcher to Launch Pad 39-B, about 11 days before the first launch opportunity.
Artemis I won’t have a crew on its flight to the moon. Artemis II is slated for no earlier than May 2024 that will send astronauts to orbit the moon but not land. Artemis III is planned for no earlier than 2025 but aims to return humans, including the first woman, to the lunar surface since the end of the Apollo program in 1972.
“This is our first flight, and this is a campaign that we’re building. This is a series of missions to achieve objectives that we’re laying out as an agency to do near-term and long-term exploration both on the moon and beyond‚” Free said.
While no humans will fly, Artemis I will bring along three surrogate mannequins to test radiation levels during flight. Two of them representing females are named Zohar and Helga, while a third — Cmdr. Moonikin Campos — was named after more than 300,000 people voted to honor the late Arturo Campos, who helped NASA bring the Apollo 13 crew safely back to Earth.
Artemis I will fly 280,000 miles away from Earth, 40,000 miles beyond the moon, making it the farthest any human-rated spacecraft has ever traveled. The test flight objectives include demonstrating Orion’s heat shield for the 24,500 mph re-entry that will generate temperatures near 5,000 degree Fahrenheit.
“That is much faster and much hotter than the temperatures we see when we return from low-Earth orbit,” Sarafin said. “No … test facility can re-create the conditions that we will see … so validating the heat shield is our primary objective and is a critical activity that we see is necessary before we fly crew on Orion on our very next mission.”
The Artemis launch will be the first payoff for the program that was originally to have launched in 2016 but has seen multiple delays to both the SLS rocket and Orion capsule. Last fall, NASA stated the cost for just the SLS rocket for Artemis I will have topped $11 billion by the time it launches while the combined cost for the Orion capsules for the first two missions will top $9.3 billion.
NASA’s Office of the Inspector General also estimated in an audit last fall the cost of Artemis missions will top $93 billion through 2025.
If NASA can’t manage liftoff during these first three targets, it has windows that run from Sept. 20-Oct. 4, Oct. 17-31, Nov. 12-27 and Dec. 9-23. Each window has only certain days during which the Earth and moon are in the right position for the mission.
When it does launch, it could become the most powerful rocket ever to lift off from Earth producing 8.8 million pounds of thrust. SpaceX’s in-the-works Starship, which is also aiming for a launch this year, though, will nearly double that power.
NASA has run the rocket through a series of wet dress rehearsals at KSC since April, rolling it out to the launch pad and back to the VAB twice encountering a series of pressure and valve issues.
Teams continue to work through those issues in the VAB to get ready for what NASA managers say they hope is the last rollout to the launch pad before a successful liftoff.
“We’re trying to make sure that everybody understands this is the first time that we’re going to try and launch this vehicle,” Free said. “We’re going to be careful. We’re going to work hard to meet the attempts from those dates that I gave you and do our best to position ourselves to have the confidence in those dates.”
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