More than 50 years after the Apollo Moon landing, NASA is getting ready to go back there.
The Artemis I mission was scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in the US state of Florida, during a two-hour window that opened at 8:33am EDT (12:33 GMT), on Monday, August 29. However, due to an issue with engine number three, the launch was scrubbed.
The next launch opportunity is this Friday, September 2 at 12:48pm EDT (17:48 GMT). NASA will live stream the launch on YouTube.
Artemis I is the first stage of NASA’s new lunar exploration programme, which has the ultimate goal of establishing a long-term presence on the Moon’s surface.
NASA’s most powerful rocket ever produced will propel the unmanned Orion spacecraft to the Moon at a speed of 39,400km/h (24,500mph).
If all goes well, astronauts could strap in 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.
Orion’s flight is supposed to last six weeks from its Florida liftoff to the Pacific splashdown. This extra-long mission – twice as long as astronaut trips – is designed to test and tax all systems.
It will take nearly a week to reach the Moon, 386,000km (240,000 miles) away. After whipping closely around the Moon, the capsule will use the Moon’s gravity to swing out and enter a distant orbit with a far point of 61,000km (38,000 miles). That will put Orion 450,000km (280,000 miles) from Earth, farther than Apollo, which was at 400,727km (249,000 miles)
The big test comes at the mission’s end, as Orion hits the atmosphere at 40,000km/h (25,000mph) on its way to a splashdown in the Pacific. The speed of re-entry will generate an intense amount of heat, which will test the capsule’s heat shield.
The heat shield uses the same material as the Apollo capsules to withstand reentry temperatures of 2,750 degrees Celsius (5,000 degrees Fahrenheit).
But the advanced design anticipates the faster, hotter returns by future Mars crews. The mission is supposed to be the first step towards a sustained programme of human exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond, according to John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
What is Artemis going to do?
According to NASA, it is “going back to the Moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits, and inspiration for a new generation of explorers”.
With the Artemis’s missions, NASA plans to land the first woman and the first person of colour on the Moon.
Besides three test dummies, the flight has a slew of stowaways for deep space research.
Ten shoebox-sized satellites called CubeSats, carried inside the rocket, will pop off once Orion is hurtling towards the Moon. They will conduct a range of science experiments and technology demonstrations in deep space.
The Orion will carry a few slivers of Moon rocks collected by Apollo 11′s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969, and a bolt from one of their rocket engines, salvaged from the sea 10 years ago.
(Left): Saturn V rocket, with Apollo 12’s spacecraft on board, on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in 1969. (Right): NASA’s new Moon rocket for the Artemis programme with the Orion spacecraft on top at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on March 18, 2022 [AP Photo]
Previous Moon missions
More than 50 years later, Apollo still stands as NASA’s greatest achievement.
Twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon from 1969 through 1972, staying no longer than three days at a time. For Artemis, NASA will be drawing from a diverse astronaut pool currently numbering 42 and is extending the time crews will spend on the moon to at least a week.
Using 1960s technology, NASA took just eight years to go from launching its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, to landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon.
By contrast, Artemis, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister, has already been in the works for more than 10 years and is estimated to cost $93bn by 2025.
Since 1958, there have been 70 successful and partially successful missions by six nations to the Moon. A further 41 flights were not successful, according to NASA’s archive.
The Moon sets in front of the NASA Artemis rocket with the Orion spacecraft on board on pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center, June 15, in Cape Canaveral, Florida [John Raoux / AP Photo]
During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the US and USSR were the only countries that attempted missions to the Moon. Between them, the two Cold War rivals attempted at least 90 Moon missions, 40 of which were unsuccessful.
During the 1980s, no lunar missions were launched.
In 1990, Japan joined the space race with its Hiten Orbiter.
In the 2000s, China, India and the European Space Agency launched their first successful missions to the Moon.
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