Fifty years after Apollo’s last flight, the time has come for Artemis to take over. The most powerful rocket in the world is preparing to make its maiden flight Monday from Florida and at the same time launch the American program to return to the Moon. Notably, the European Space Agency has for the first time been commissioned by NASA to design a system critical to the success of a future manned mission.
Admittedly, it is a test flight, without a crew on board, but for NASA, which has been preparing for this takeoff for more than a decade, the event is highly symbolic. He must embody the future of the space agency and prove that it is still capable of competing, especially against the ambitions of China or SpaceX.
Around Cape Canaveral, hotels are sold out, with between 100,000 and 200,000 people expected to watch the show, scheduled for 8:33 a.m. local time. From the top of its 98 meters, the orange and white machine has already been enthroned for a week on launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center. Since it was released, “you can feel the excitement, the energy has gone up a notch, it’s really palpable,” center director Janet Petro told a news conference.
Where and how to track this flight?
On-board cameras will make it possible to follow this journey of 42 days in total. A spectacular selfie with the Earth and the Moon in the background is on the program.
NASA even set up AROW, a site specially designed to follow the spacecraft’s journey in real time. “Users will be able to track the Orion capsule and see where it is in relation to Earth and the Moon,” NASA explains. “They will discover all the key stages of the mission, the characteristics of the Moon, the data and flight paths…”
The Arow site will be officially launched on the eve of take-off, this Sunday August 28th. It will notably be accessible via the NASA website. During his mission, Orion also his own Twitter account.
Manikins with sensors
The purpose of this mission, called Artémis 1, is to test the SLS rocket (for Space Launch System) in real conditions, and the Orion capsule at its summit, where the astronauts will take place in the future. For this time, only dummies are on board, equipped with sensors to record vibrations and radiation levels.
Once in orbit, Orion will circle the Moon one and a half times (380,000 km away), venturing up to 64,000 km behind it, farther than any other habitable spacecraft so far.
The main objective is to test its heat shield, which, on its return to the Earth’s atmosphere, will have to withstand a speed of nearly 40,000 km/h and a temperature half as hot as the surface of the Sun.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has been entrusted by NASA with the construction of the ESM, a cylinder approximately four meters in diameter and height placed under the Orion capsule. It will be responsible for carrying it to and around the Moon after separation from the main stage of the SLS launch vehicle, approximately eight minutes after liftoff. This system, built by Airbus Defense and Space in Germany, will also provide the Orion capsule with electricity using four solar panels, water, oxygen and thermal control essential to the life of the astronauts who will travel from the second Artemis mission.
Thousands of people have contributed to this mission, across the 50 American states and several European countries. All space enthusiasts are now hooked on the weather, which can be capricious at this time of year. On Monday, the shooting window extends over two hours and fallback dates are scheduled for September 2 or 5.
Apart from this uncontrollable factor, everything is ready: NASA officials have given the go-ahead for takeoff after a final detailed inspection. This does not mean that everything will go smoothly in flight, they warned. “We are doing something incredibly difficult and it has inherent risks,” said Mike Sarafin, in charge of the mission.
Despite numerous preliminary tests, the various elements of the capsule and the rocket (which is not reusable) will fly together for the first time. NASA has promised to push the vehicle to its limits. The mission will continue even if Orion’s solar panels do not deploy as planned, a risk that would not be taken with a crew.
But a complete failure would remain devastating, for a rocket with a whopping $4.1 billion per launch, according to a public audit, and overdue – it was commissioned by the US Congress in 2010, with liftoff initially expected in 2017 .
While the Apollo program only allowed white men to walk on the Moon, the Artemis program intends to send the first woman and the first non-white person there.
After this first mission, Artemis 2 will carry astronauts to orbit around the Moon, without landing there. This honor will be reserved for the crew of Artemis 3, scheduled for 2025 at the earliest.
Unlike the one-off Apollo missions, the goal of Artemis is to establish a lasting human presence on the Moon, with the construction of a space station in orbit around it (Gateway) and a base on the surface.
All the techniques needed to send humans to Mars must be tested there. And Gateway will serve as a stopover and refueling point before this long journey of at least several months.