The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft now sits on the launchpad, ready for liftoff on a journey around the Moon. This is the first time since 1972 that NASA has a human-rated spacecraft is ready to go beyond Earth orbit.
The launch for the uncrewed Artemis 1 test flight is currently scheduled for August 29, and it will be the first full integrated test of the super heavy-lift launch vehicle and the Orion capsule. The flight will last several weeks, and go further into space than all the Apollo missions. This will test out not only the rocket and spacecraft but also the supporting ground systems and teams. If all goes well, NASA will announce the crew and schedule for a crewed Artemis 2 flight around the Moon, likely in 2024 and the crewed Artemis 3 Moon landing mission would follow in 2025.
The massive 322-foot-tall (98-meter-tall) stack set out on its slow 6.4 km (4-mile) ride aboard one of the Apollo-era giant crawler transporters, going from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39B. The rollout took just over 10 hours, and was completed on Wednesday August 17 at 8:03 a.m. EDT (1203 GMT).
During its flight, Orion will go into a distant retrograde orbit around the moon, reaching 64,000 km (40,000 miles) beyond the Moon. The flight will last 42 days before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego. If Artemis 1 launches as scheduled on August 29, the splashdown should occur on October 10.
While there are no humans onboard, Orion will carry 54.4 kilograms (120 pounds) of equipment and mementos, with three fully outfitted mannequins, some toys, and Apollo 11 items.
Sitting in the commander’s seat of Orion will be Commander “Moonikin” Campos, — named after Apollo engineer Art Campos — a suited mannequin that will collect data on what future human crews might experience on a lunar trip. The mannequin will wear the new Orion Crew Survival System suit designed for astronauts to wear during launch and reentry.
Two other mannequin torsos named Helga and Zohar will ride in other Orion seats. These mannequins are made of materials that mimic the soft tissue, organs and bones of a woman, since Artemis’ tagline is to land the first woman on the Moon. The two torsos have more than 5,600 sensors and 34 radiation detectors to measure how much radiation exposure occurs during the spaceflight.
While there is definitely excitement in the space community for the upcoming launch, there is also a sense of indifference. There’s the “been there done that” crowd who feels NASA should be going to Mars instead of returning to the Moon, or that NASA shouldn’t have been forced by Congress to spend billions on a gigantic rocket, or that Elon Musk could be doing all of this faster, better and cheaper.
Long-time space reporter Leonard David even suggested that “there are those that rail against the SLS and even wish that this giant of a booster falls flat on its tail section at liftoff.” David wrote in an article on his website that, “Personally, I can’t think of a Space Age time when there were those wishing NASA to fail.”
David spoke to several experts in the space community about this lack of excitement, including Marcia Smith, Founder and Editor of Space Policy Online. “I don’t think people want NASA to fail in the sense that SLS blows up,” she said. “They just want SLS to go away because they think it’s a dinosaur and Starship is the shiny new thing.”
Leonard David’s article is an interesting read, with several different perspectives on the current state of affairs in the space industry. You can read the full article here.