- Jonathan Amos
- Science reporter
NASA is preparing its new giant moon rocket for its maiden voyage.
The vehicle, known as the Space Launch System (SLS), is being transported to Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the planned Aug. 29 launch.
There will be no astronauts on this first test flight. But future missions will send astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time in 50 years.
The SLS, about 100 meters (328 feet) tall, is transported to the launch pad on a large tractor.
It started moving from its construction site in Kennedy on Tuesday evening local time. But at a speed of 1 km/h (less than 1 mph), it can take 8-10 hours to complete the 6.7 km (4.2 mi) journey.
This is a pivotal moment for NASA. In December, NASA will celebrate the half-century anniversary of Apollo 17, the last man to set foot on the moon.
NASA has announced that it will return to the field with its new Artemis program, which will use modern technology. (Artemis is the twin sister of the Greek god Apollo and also the moon god).
NASA sees this trip to the moon as a way to get astronauts to Mars in the 2030s or sooner.
SLS will have 15% more thrust than Apollo’s Saturn V rockets. Coupled with this extra power and further improvements, it would not only send astronauts far beyond Earth, but could also carry more equipment and cargo, allowing crews to live off Earth for longer periods of time.
The crew capsule is a step up in capability. Called Orion, it is wider than the command modules of the 1960s and 70s. The capsule is 5 m (16.5 ft) wide and has an extra width of one meter.
“A message to all of us who dream of when mankind will return to the moon.’ We’re going back there, folks. That journey, our journey, begins with Artemis 1,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
“The journey of Artemis 2 with astronauts will be two years later in 2024. We hope that the first landing of Artemis 3 will be in 2025,” he told BBC News.
NASA has promised that a female astronaut will set foot on the moon’s surface for the first time on Artemis’s third mission.
Once the SLS arrives at its launch pad, engineers will have only about a week and a half to prepare it for spaceflight.
There are three possible launch dates starting on August 29.
If the rocket cannot be launched on this date due to technical problems or inclement weather, it will be attempted again on Friday, September 2. If that fails, another attempt can be made on Monday, September 5.
The purpose of the mission was to have Orion orbit the back of the Moon before returning the rocket to the Pacific Ocean off California.
The main objective of the test run was to check whether the capsule’s heat shield could withstand the heat generated during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
“More than 10 countries in Europe are working on this European Space Agency contribution. This is a very important moment for us,” explained Sian Cleaver from Airbus.
“The European Service Module is not just a payload. It’s not just a piece of equipment. It’s a very important element, because without it Orion can’t reach the moon.”
While NASA is developing the SLS, American rocket entrepreneur Elon Musk is developing a much larger vehicle at his research and development facility in Texas.
He calls his giant rocket the Starship. And it will play a key role in future Artemis missions by pairing it with Orion to carry astronauts to the lunar surface, he says.
Like the SLS, Starship has yet to complete a test run. Starship, unlike the SLS, is designed to be completely reusable. So using it can be significantly cheaper.
A recent estimate by the Office of the Inspector General, which audits NASA programs, said each of the first four SLS missions would cost more than $4 billion to operate and would be “difficult to continue.”
NASA said the changes to the industry contract will significantly reduce future production costs.
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