NASA tests new moon rocket, 50 years after Apollo

NASA tests new moon rocket, 50 years after Apollo

NASA tests new moon rocket, 50 years after Apollo

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Years late and billions over budget, NASA’s new lunar rocket debuts next week in a high-stakes test flight before the astronauts get on top.

The 322-foot (98-meter) rocket will attempt to send an empty crew capsule into distant lunar orbit, 50 years after NASA’s famous Apollo moonshot.

If all goes well, astronauts could strap on as soon as 2024 for a lap around the moon, with NASA aiming to land two people on the lunar surface by the end of 2025.

Liftoff is set for Monday morning from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The six-week test flight is risky and could be aborted if something goes wrong, NASA officials warn.

“We will stress it and test it. We’re going to make it do things that we would never do with a crew on it to try to make it as safe as possible,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The retired founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute said a lot is riding on this trial run. Rising costs and long distances between missions will make for a tough comeback if things go south, he noted.

“It is intended to be the first step in a sustained program of human exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond,” John Logsdon said. “Will the United States have the will to press forward in the face of a major failure?”

The price tag for this single mission: more than $4 billion. Add up everything since the program began a decade ago to a moon landing in 2025, and there’s even more sticker shock: $93 billion.

Here’s an overview of the first flight in the Artemis program, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister.


The new rocket is shorter and sleeker than the Saturn V rockets that launched 24 Apollo astronauts to the moon half a century ago. But it’s more powerful, packing 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust. It’s called the Space Launch System rocket, SLS for short, but a less goofy name is under discussion, according to Nelson. Unlike the streamlined Saturn V, the new rocket has a pair of strap-on boosters repurposed from NASA’s space shuttles. The boosters will peel away after two minutes, just as the shuttle boosters did, but will not be fished out of the Atlantic for reuse. The core stage will continue firing before it separates and crashes into the Pacific Ocean in pieces. Two hours after liftoff, an upper stage will send the capsule, Orion, hurtling toward the moon.


NASA’s high-tech, automated Orion capsule is named after the constellation, among the brightest in the night sky. At 11 feet (3 meters) tall, it is more spacious than Apollo’s capsule, accommodating four astronauts instead of three. For this test flight, a full-size dummy in an orange flight suit will occupy the commander’s seat, rigged with vibration and acceleration sensors. Two other mannequins made of material that simulates human tissue – heads and female torsos, but no limbs – will measure cosmic radiation, one of the biggest risks of spaceflight. One torso tests a protective vest from Israel. Unlike the rocket, Orion has launched before, completing two orbits in 2014. This time, the European Space Agency’s service module will be attached for propulsion and solar power via four wings.


Orion’s flight is intended to last six weeks from ascent in Florida to Pacific splashdown, twice as long as the astronauts travel to load the systems. It will take almost a week to reach the moon, 240,000 miles (386,000 kilometers) away. After whipping closely around the moon, the capsule will enter a distant orbit with a far point of 38,000 miles (61,000 kilometers). That will put Orion 450,000 kilometers from Earth, further than Apollo. The big test comes at the end of the mission, when Orion hits the atmosphere at 40,000 km/h on its way to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. The heat shield uses the same material as the Apollo capsules to withstand re-entry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,750 degrees Celsius). But the advanced design anticipates faster, hotter returns by future Mars crews.


Besides three test dummies, the plane has a number of dummies for deep space research. Ten shoebox-sized satellites will pop off as Orion hurtles toward the moon. The problem is that these so-called CubeSats were installed in the rocket a year ago, and the batteries of half of them could not be charged as the launch was constantly delayed. NASA expects some to fail, given the low cost and high-risk nature of these minisatellites. Radiation measuring CubeSats should be OK. Also in the clear: a solar sail demo aimed at an asteroid. In a back-to-the-future salute, Orion will carry some pieces of moon rock collected by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969, and a bolt from one of their rocket engines, salvaged from the ocean a decade ago. Aldrin is not with the launch, according to NASA, but three of his former colleagues will be there: Apollo 7’s Walter Cunningham, Apollo 10’s Tom Stafford and Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt, the penultimate man to walk on the moon.


More than 50 years later, Apollo still stands as NASA’s greatest achievement. Using 1960s technology, it took just eight years from NASA launching its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, to landing Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. By contrast, Artemis has already dragged on for more than a decade, despite building on the short-lived Constellation lunar exploration program. Twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon from 1969 to 1972, staying no more than three days at a time. For Artemis, NASA will draw from a diverse astronaut pool that currently numbers 42 and extend the time crews will spend on the moon to at least a week. The goal is to create a long-term lunar presence that will grease the skids to send people to Mars. NASA’s Nelson promises to announce the first Artemis moon crews once Orion is back on Earth.


There is much more to be done before astronauts walk on the moon again. A second test flight will send four astronauts around the moon and back, perhaps as early as 2024. A year or so later, NASA aims to send four more up, with two of them touching down at the moon’s south pole. Orion doesn’t come with its own lunar lander like the Apollo spacecraft did, so NASA has hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to provide its Starship spacecraft for the first Artemis lunar landing. Two other private companies are developing moonwalking suits. The sci-fi-like starship would dock with Orion on the moon and take a pair of astronauts to the surface and back to the capsule for the return trip. So far, the Starship has only risen six miles (10 kilometers). Musk wants to launch Starship around Earth on SpaceX’s Super Heavy Booster before attempting an unmanned lunar landing. One catch: The starship needs a refuel at a fuel depot in Earth orbit before heading to the moon.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.