NASA plans to launch the Artemis I mission on Monday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, sending the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule on a more than a month-long journey around the moon. —
The uncrewed launch marks the debut of the most powerful rocket ever built and launches NASA’s long-awaited return to the lunar surface. This is the first mission in NASA’s Artemis lunar program, which is expected to land agency astronauts on the moon as part of its third mission in 2025.
While Artemis I will not carry astronauts or land on the Moon, the mission is critical to demonstrating that NASA’s monstrous rocket and deep space capsule can perform the promised functions. Artemis I has been delayed for years as the program’s budget is billions of dollars over budget.
A NASA Artemis I Moon rocket rolls out onto Launch Pad Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on August 16, 2022.
Chandan Khanna | AFP | Getty Images
The Artemis I mission represents a decisive turning point in NASA’s lunar plans.
Despite delays and the absorption of most of NASA’s relatively small budget by federal agency standards, the Artemis program enjoys strong bipartisan political support.
Officials in 2012 estimated that the SLS rocket would cost $6 billion to develop, debut in 2017, and have a launch price of $500 million. But the rocket is only now making its debut, costing more than $20 billion to develop, and its launch price has risen to $4.1 billion.
NASA’s Inspector General, its internal auditor, said earlier this year that Artemis is not the “sustainable” lunar program that agency officials claim. The watchdog found that more than $40 billion has already been spent on the program, and NASA is projected to spend $93 billion on the effort through 2025, when the first landing is scheduled.
But even that 2025 date is in doubt, according to NASA’s inspector general, who said the development technologies needed to land on the moon’s surface are unlikely to be ready until 2026, at the earliest.
NASA’s Artemis plan also builds on the success of another monster rocket: the SpaceX Starship. Last year, the agency awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to develop a version of the rocket for the Moon to be used as a lander for the crew of the Artemis III mission.
SpaceX began testing its Starship spacecraft in earnest in 2019, but that rocket has yet to enter orbit.
A host of U.S. aerospace contractors are supporting hardware, infrastructure and software for NASA’s Artemis I – Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Jacobs are leading the effort. The Artemis program supports about 70,000 jobs nationwide, according to NASA.
In addition to Kennedy, several NASA centers are used as launch pads, including DC headquarters, Marshall in Alabama, Stennis in Mississippi, Ames in California, and Langley in Virginia.
In case technical issues or weather delay the Aug. 29 launch attempt, NASA has reserve launch dates scheduled for Sept. 2 and 5.
Here’s what you need to know about launching:
NASA’s Lunar Megarocket SLS, topped by the Orion spacecraft, exits the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center on its way to Launch Complex 39B for launch rehearsal on March 17, 2022 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Paul Hennessy | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
The 322-foot skyscraper-tall SLS rocket is a sophisticated vehicle built on technologies used and enhanced by NASA’s Space Shuttle and Apollo programs.
A fully fueled SLS rocket weighs 5.7 million pounds and develops up to 8.8 million pounds of thrust—15% more than last century Saturn V rockets. The SLS uses four RS-25 liquid-propellant engines that flew the shuttles before refurbishment and upgrades, as well as a pair of solid rocket boosters.
The SLS main stage has an orange color due to the thermal protection system that covers it, which is a spray foam insulation. For the first three Artemis missions, NASA uses a variant of the SLS known as Block 1. For later missions, NASA plans to deploy an even more powerful variant known as Block 1B.
NASA Orion spacecraft
The NASA Orion capsule can carry four astronauts on missions of up to 21 days without docking with another spacecraft. It is based on the crew module, which is designed to operate in the harsh conditions of deep space flight.
After launch, Orion is refueled and powered by a European service module that was built by the European Space Agency and contractor Airbus.
For Artemis I, there will be three dummies inside the Orion capsule that will collect data via sensors about what astronauts will experience during their flight to and from the moon. The return to Earth will be especially important as Orion will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at about 25,000 miles per hour. A heat shield protects Orion’s exterior, and a set of parachutes slows it down for an ocean landing.
Mission around the moon
A NASA Artemis I Moon rocket sits on launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on June 15, 2022.
Eva Marie Uscategui | AFP | Getty Images
Artemis I will cover about 1.3 million miles over 42 days, consisting of several stages. After separation from the SLS, the capsule will deploy solar arrays and embark on a multi-day trip to the Moon, leaving Earth orbit in what is known as a “translunar injection.”
NASA plans to lift Orion 60 miles above the Moon’s surface before entering a wide orbit around the lunar body. To return, Orion will use the Moon’s gravity to help him establish a trajectory back into Earth’s orbit.
The Orion is expected to land in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego, California, where a team from NASA and the Department of Defense will retrieve the capsule.
In addition to the dummies aboard Orion, Artemis I carries several payloads such as cube satellites, technology demonstrations, and scientific research.