CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. Ground crews at Kennedy Space Center prepared on Saturday for a second attempt to launch a rocket. It’s NASA’s towering next-generation lunar rocket. The debut flight was hoping to have remedied engineering problems. It thwarted the initial countdown five days earlier.
The 32-story-high Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and its Orion capsule were due to lift off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 2:17 p.m. EDT (1817 GMT). Kicking off the ambitious Artemis program of NASA’s Moon-to-Mars program 50 years after the last Apollo lunar mission.
The previous launch offers on Monday ended with technical issues. The issues forced a halt to the countdown and postponed the uncrewed flight.
Tests indicated that technicians have since fixed a leaky fuel line. The line contributed to Monday’s canceled launch, Jeremy Parsons. Jeremy Parsons deputy program manager at the space center, told reporters Friday.
There are two other key issues with the rocket itself. A faulty engine temperature sensor and some cracks in the insulation foam are a couple of issues. They have been resolved to NASA’s satisfaction; Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin told reporters Thursday night.
Weather is always more factor beyond NASA’s control. The latest forecast called for a 70% chance of favorable conditions during Saturday’s two-hour launch window, according to the U.S. Space Force at Cape Canaveral.
If the countdown clock were to stop again, NASA could reschedule another launch attempt for Monday or Tuesday.
Dubbed Artemis I, the mission marks the first flight for both the SLS rocket and the Orion capsule. Both were built under NASA contracts with Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp.
It also signals a major shift in the direction of NASA’s post-Apollo manned spaceflight program. It is after decades focused on low-Earth orbit with space shuttles and the International Space Station.
Named after the goddess who was Apollo’s twin sister in ancient Greek mythology. Artemis aims to return astronauts to the surface of the moon as early as 2025.
Twelve astronauts walked on the moon during six Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972. Apollo missions are the only space flights that have yet to place humans on the lunar surface. But Apollo, born out of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, was less science-driven than Artemis.
The new moon program has recruited commercial partners such as SpaceX and space agencies from Europe, Canada, and Japan. They eventually established a long-term lunar home base as a springboard for even more ambitious human travel to Mars.
Getting the SLS-Orion spacecraft off the ground is a key first step. Its first trip is meant to test the 5.75-million-pound vehicle in a rigorous test flight. This flight exceeds its design limits and proves that the spacecraft is suitable for flying astronauts.
If the mission is successful, a manned Artemis II flight around the moon and back could arrive as early as 2024. It follows a few more years with the first lunar landing of the astronaut program, one of them a woman, with Artemis III.
Regarded as the world’s most powerful and complex rocket, the SLS represents the largest new vertical launch system the U.S. space agency has built since the Apollo-era Saturn V.
Saturday’s countdown should end with the rocket’s four main R-25 engines. Twin solid rocket boosters fire up to produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust, about 15% more thrust than the Saturn V, sending the spacecraft into the sky.
About 90 minutes after launch, the rocket’s upper stage will push Orion out of ongoing Earth orbit for a 37-day flight. The flight will take it within 60 miles of the lunar surface before navigating 40,000 miles (64,374 km) beyond the moon and back to Earth. The capsule is expected to fall into the Pacific on October 11.
Although there will be no humans on board, Orion will carry a simulated crew of three mannequins. One male and two female, equipped with sensors to measure radiation levels and other stresses that real-life astronauts would experience.
The primary goal of the mission is to test the durability of Orion’s heat shield during reentry. It hits Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles (39,429 km) per hour, or 32 times the speed of sound, upon its return from lunar orbit. It is much faster than the more common re-entries of capsules returning from Earth orbit.
The heat shield is designed to withstand reentry friction that expects to raise temperatures outside the capsule to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius).
More than a decade in development with years of delays and budget overruns. The SLS-Orion spacecraft has so far cost NASA at least $37 billion, including design, construction, testing, and ground facilities. NASA’s Office of Inspector General has projected that Artemis’ total costs will amount to $93 billion by 2025.
NASA defends the program as a boon to space exploration that has generated tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in trade.
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