AFP, published on Wednesday, August 24, 2022 at 10:48 p.m.
Fifty years after the last Apollo flight, the time has come for Artemis to take over: the world’s most powerful rocket prepares to make its maiden flight Monday from Florida, launching the US program to return to the Moon at the same time. .
True, this is a test flight, with no crew on board. But for NASA, which has been preparing for this liftoff for more than a decade, the event is highly symbolic.
It must embody the future of the space agency and show that it is still capable of competing, especially against the ambitions of China or SpaceX.
Around Cape Canaveral, hotels are full and between 100,000 and 200,000 people are expected to attend the show, scheduled for 8:33 am local time on Monday.
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 launched, “you can feel the excitement, the energy has increased a little bit, it’s really palpable,” the center’s director, Janet Petro, told a news conference.
The objective of this mission, called Artémis 1, is to test the SLS (Space Launch System) rocket and the Orion capsule at its summit, where future astronauts will stay, in real conditions.
For now, there are only dummies on board, equipped with sensors to record vibrations and radiation levels.
The cameras on board 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.
Once in orbit, Orion will orbit 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 to date.
The main objective is to test its thermal shield, which on its return to the Earth’s atmosphere must withstand a speed close to 40,000 km/h, and a temperature half that of the Sun’s surface.
– ‘Incredibly difficult’ –
Thousands of people have contributed to this mission, in all 50 American states and several European countries.
All space enthusiasts are now clinging to the weather, which can be capricious this time of year. For example, takeoff cannot take place in the rain.
On Monday, the shooting window is extended by two hours and booking dates are scheduled for September 2 or 5.
Apart from this uncontrollable factor, everything is ready: NASA officials have given the go-ahead for liftoff after a last detailed inspection.
Which is not to say that everything goes smoothly in flight, they warned. “We’re doing something incredibly difficult and it has inherent risks,” said Mike Sarafin, mission leader.
Despite numerous preliminary tests, the various elements of the capsule and the rocket (which is not reusable) will fly together for the first time. That could contain surprises.
NASA has promised to push the vehicle to the limit. The mission will continue, for example, even if Orion’s solar arrays don’t deploy as planned, a risk that wouldn’t be taken with a crew.
But a total failure would still be devastating, for a rocket with a huge budget (4.1 billion per launch, according to a public audit) and late (ordered by the US Congress in 2010, with a launch initially planned for 2017).
– Target Mars –
While the Apollo program only allowed white men to walk on the Moon, the Artemis program plans to send the first woman and the first person of color 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.
But why, exactly, redo what has already been done?
This time, the Moon will really just be a stepping stone to Mars.
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 technologies needed to send humans to the Red Planet will be tested there. And Gateway will serve as a stopover and refueling point before this long journey of several months at least.
“I think (the Artemis program) will inspire even more than Apollo,” said Bob Cabana, a former astronaut who is now an associate administrator at NASA. “It’s going to be absolutely extraordinary.”
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