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Artemis I rocket makes last road trip before launch despite late lightning threat

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 8/17/2022 Richard Tribou, Orlando Sentinel
Artemis I leaves the Vehicle Assembly Building as it rolls out to launch pad 39-B at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., Tuesday, August 16, 2022. The rocket is scheduled to launch on an unmanned mission to orbit the moon on August 29. © Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Artemis I leaves the Vehicle Assembly Building as it rolls out to launch pad 39-B at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., Tuesday, August 16, 2022. The rocket is scheduled to launch on an unmanned mission to orbit the moon on August 29.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — NASA’s massive multibillion-dollar moon rocket is making its final terrestrial journey before its first celestial flight.

Artemis I, a combination of the Space Launch System, Orion capsule and mobile launcher, began the slow roll atop the crawler-transporter 2 from the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center late Tuesday with its first movement coming just before 10 p.m., delayed an hour when a storm cell brought a lightning warning as it approached KSC.

Floodlights cast the massive shadow of the structure that slowly slid across the white walls of the VAB as the crawler slogged away at a slow clip under 1 mph. By midnight, the orange glow of the waning moon rose in the east as the crawler inched toward it down the road for its overnight trek to the launch pad. It arrived nearly 10 hours later around 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.

NASA’s Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin called the trip “the first 4 miles of NASA’s return to the moon.”

Just before sunset, crowds made their into the grassy areas aside the gravel path that leads to Launch Pad 39-B to catch what will likely be their last chance for a close-up view of the 5.75 million-pound, 322-foot-tall behemoth that represents the first mission of NASA’s eventual plans to return humans to the lunar surface in more than 50 years.

“The Saturn V took us to the moon half a century ago, and now as we embark on the first Artemis test flight, we recall this agency’s storied past, but our eyes are focused — not the immediate future, but out there,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a status update in July. “It’s a future where NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon, and on these increasingly complex missions, astronauts will live and work in deep space and will develop the science and technology to send the first humans to Mars.”

Lightning lights up clouds over the Vehicle Assembly Building, delaying the rollout of Artemis I at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., Tuesday, August 16, 2022. The rocket is scheduled to launch on an unmanned mission to orbit the moon on August 29. © Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Lightning lights up clouds over the Vehicle Assembly Building, delaying the rollout of Artemis I at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., Tuesday, August 16, 2022. The rocket is scheduled to launch on an unmanned mission to orbit the moon on August 29.

Artemis I will be uncrewed, flying three mannequins to test out how the new Orion capsule will treat human passengers during what’s planned to be a 42-day mission that will travel 1.3 million miles as it makes more than 100 orbits around the moon before its return to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

The first potential launch day is Monday, Aug. 29 at 8:33 a.m. with backup attempts possible on Friday, Sept. 2 and Monday, Sept. 5.

What’s being tested?

The flight has several goals, but at the top of the list is making sure Orion’s heat shield can endure the roughly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit that will be generated as it returns into the atmosphere at 24,500 mph.

It will fly to a retrograde orbit, meaning flying around the moon opposite of how the moon orbits the Earth, that will put the capsule 40,000 miles beyond the surface of the moon, which at 280,000 miles away from Earth is the farthest any human-rated spacecraft will have ever flown.

Along for the flight will be several ride-along science projects on small satellites called CubeSats that will deploy before Orion heads to the moon. Several science experiments will fly on the Orion capsule itself.They include a radiation protection suit worn by one of the mannequins to measure danger levels that astronauts could endure as the spacecraft will fly beyond the protective Van Allen radiation belts that normally block the effects of solar flares and cosmic rays.

Long road to launch

The rollout marks the third time NASA has sent it out to the launch pad with its two previous trips having been to perform a wet dress rehearsal during which NASA wanted to fill and drain the core and upper stage of SLS with 730,000 gallons of super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen while also simulating a countdown but without lighting the engines.

Those tests revealed several valve and pressure issues for the complex system that NASA officials are confident they’ve worked through so the launch attempt can push forward.

The last part of the prep puzzle was testing the flight termination system at the VAB, completed over the weekend.

When originally announced by NASA in 2012, the first launch was to have taken place by as early as 2016 with expected costs of $500,000 per launch. The cost projection for each launch now is $4.1 billion through the first four missions, according to the audit. A who’s who in aerospace industry have had a hand in constructing SLS and Orion.

Primarily built by Boeing, the core stage has four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines converted from the space shuttle program. They will combine with two solid rocket boosters built by Northrop Grumman to produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust, which will send the Lockheed Martin-built Orion into space.

The launch will surpass the power of the Saturn V rockets, and make Artemis I the most powerful rocket to launch from Earth, at least until SpaceX manages to get its new Starship and Super Heavy rocket into orbit, which is expected before the end of the year as well.

After liftoff, United Launch Alliance is contributing help with the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage that will help Orion break away from Earth orbit, and a European Space Agency service module will then propel Orion toward, around and back from the moon.

“A rocket like this doesn’t build itself,” said NASA astronaut Donald Pettit from the rollout site. “It’s built by people. And they’re all walks of life of people ... It takes a heap of folks to make something like this happen.”

From Apollo to Artemis

“When you look at the rocket, it almost looks retro,” Nelson said. “It looks like we’re looking back toward the Saturn V, but it’s a totally different, new, highly sophisticated — more sophisticated — rocket and spacecraft. And we’re going to learn from this Artemis I. We’re learning through the challenges, the accomplishments. Artemis I shows that we can do big things, things that unite people, things that benefit humanity, things like Apollo that inspired the world.”

Artemis II won’t be until at least May 2024 flying four crew back to orbit the moon, but not land. It won’t be until Artemis III no earlier than 2025 that NASA looks to return to the surface. After that, NASA wants to fly at least one SLS mission a year to build out a consistent lunar presence and prepare for the exploration of Mars.

“We’re going to Mars and we’re going back to the moon in order to learn to live, to work, to survive — how do you keep humans alive in those hostile conditions?” Nelson said. “We’re going to learn how to use the resources on the moon in order to be able to build things in the future as we go, not a quarter of a million miles away, not a 3-day journey, but millions and million of miles away on a months-and-months’ if not years’ journey.”

The astronauts of Apollo 17 were the last two to set foot on the moon, departing the Earth’s orbiting satellite on Dec. 14, 1972. Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt were the last of 12 to have accomplished the feat.

Cernan, who died in 2017, was the last person to step off the surface back into the lunar lander saying, “We leave as we came, and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

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