Back to the moon: NASA’s return starts with critical test flight of Artemis
NASA is about to take the first step on its journey to return people to the moon by the end of the decade. If all goes well, a massive uncrewed rocket will lift off from Kennedy Space Centre on Monday morning (Monday evening at 10.33 pm AEST), then circle the moon in an orbit that will take it deep into space before it returns to Earth 42 days later.
The Artemis I mission marks a critical moment for NASA and the space industry. The Artemis program, named for the twin sister of the god Apollo in Greek mythology, aims to land the first woman and the first person of colour on the moon as early as 2025. Among the critical components of the mission are the Boeing Co.-built rocket, named the Space Launch System, and the Orion crew capsule made by Lockheed Martin Corp.
A future landing vehicle will be supplied by SpaceX.
The stakes are high for both NASA and its corporate contractors after a decade of development delays and cost overruns.
It marks the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle program that NASA has debuted a new flagship vehicle and system geared toward human spaceflight.
After the Shuttle was retired, NASA relied on Russia’s Soyuz rocket to get humans to and from the International Space Station and, more recently, has turned to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew capsule. The return of NASA to moon missions has followed a long and tortuous path on Earth.
Multiple administrations have proposed ambitious human spaceflight programs after the end of Apollo, only to fall victim to budgetary concerns.
The Space Launch System has been in development for roughly a decade, slowed by a myriad of delays and cost overruns. More than five years behind schedule, the rocket has seen its development cost soar from an original $US7 billion to about $US23 billion, according to an estimate by the Planetary Society.
Multiple audits of NASA’s main contractor, Boeing, have criticised the company for its management of SLS, and have highlighted flaws throughout the vehicle’s construction and testing. NASA and Boeing are tempering expectations ahead of the launch, stressing that Artemis I is a test of a new and highly complex system. “It’s not without risk,” Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for explorations systems development, said during a press conference ahead of the launch. “We have analysed the risk as best we can, and we’ve mitigated, also, as best we can.”
Some of those risks were apparent on Saturday, when lightning towers at the launch pad were struck multiple times.
NASA officials reviewed the situation and said the mission is still on schedule for Monday morning. “Everything to date looks good from a vehicle perspective. We haven’t had to do any significant retest,” Jeff Spaulding, senior NASA test director for Artemis I, said on Sunday. “Whenever we see things that are as dramatic as lightning, we all ought to pay a lot of attention to it, as we should.”