Nasa’s rocket launch to the moon next week aims to close the 50-year gap

Fifty years ago this month, mission managers at the US space agency Nasa gave the final go-ahead for what would prove to be humanity’s latest odyssey to the moon. Few realized then that it would be more than half a century before Nasa would be ready to return, not least Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan, whose belief when he stepped back into the lunar module in December 1972 was that it would be “not for far into the future” that astronauts were there again.

At 1:04 a.m. EST (6:04 GMT) on Wednesday, late-night technical issues and Florida’s weather gods defied, Artemis 1, the most powerful rocket ship in history, will attempt to close the decades-long gap.

There will be no humans aboard the Orion capsule on its 25-day, 1.3-mile trip to the moon and back, but the test mission’s success will pave the way for a crewed landing effort within four years. Artemis 3, currently scheduled for 2025 but likely to be pushed back a year, will add a female name to the only 12 in history — all men from the Apollo flights between 1969 and 1972 — to be classified as moonwalkers.

“We’re going back to the moon after 50 years, to stay, learn, work, create, develop new technologies and new systems and new spacecraft to be able to go to Mars,” Nasa administrator Bill Nelson said, explaining the purpose of Artemis program in an interview with Newsweek earlier this year.

“This is a huge turning point in history.”

The space agency is looking for conditions to finally gather for Wednesday’s launch after a series of delays during the summer and early fall. Trials in August and September were scrapped after engineers discovered an engine cooling problem and then were unable to fix an unrelated fuel leak.

Hopes for an early October launch were dashed when the threat of Hurricane Ian forced the space agency to roll the mammoth $4.1 billion Space Launch System (SLS) rocket back to the safety of the hangar.

And some others second-guessed Nasa’s decision to leave Artemis exposed on its Cape Canaveral, Fla., launch pad in recent days amid the fury of Hurricane Nicole’s 100 mph wind gusts.

That storm led to another two-day delay until Wednesday — and a thorough post-hurricane inspection by engineers at the Kennedy Space Center before it was declared ready for flight.

“If we didn’t design it to be out there in severe weather, we chose the wrong launch site,” NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, Jim Free, said at a press briefing on Friday.

Nelson, a former space shuttle astronaut, acknowledged delays as “part of the space industry.”

“We’ll go when it’s ready. We won’t go until then, and especially on a test flight. [We’ll] make sure it’s right before we put four people up on top,” he said after the September scrub.

Those people will be aboard Artemis 2, a 10-day interim mission scheduled for May 2024 that will fly astronauts beyond the moon without landing, testing new life support systems and equipment designed for long-duration spaceflight.

The “crew” for Artemis 1 includes sensor-rigged mannequins called Helga, Zohar and Moonikin Campos, who will measure radiation levels, and a soft toy Snoopy and Shaun the Sheep as gravity detectors.

“We’re never going to get to Artemis 2 if Artemis 1 doesn’t succeed,” Free said.

As technology has advanced, so has NASA’s reasons for wanting to be back on the lunar surface. Looking beyond the short exploration visits of the Apollo era, the agency wants to establish a long-term human presence, including the construction of a lunar base camp, as the basis for crewed missions to Mars in the mid-2030s.

Scientific discoveries, economic benefits, building a global alliance and inspiring a new generation of explorers are among NASA’s stated goals for what it calls the “Artemis Generation.”

Nasa’s Moon to Mars vision, of which the Artemis program is just one part, has a broader mission to draw in international and commercial partners for deep space exploration, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the heavy-lift Starship rocket that may be ready for its first orbit. test flight already next month.

Undeterred is the desire to keep the United States ahead of Russia, and especially China, in the next era of human spaceflight.

Analysts, including Nasa’s own inspector general, see the Artemis program’s $93 billion price tag, including $4.1 billion for each of the first launches, as unsustainable. They note that it is already billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

But some experts see political will in Washington DC to keep the moon to Mars program fully funded, even as Republicans take over the House and the nation’s purse strings from Democrats when the final midterm election results are in.

“The coalition that supports it is bipartisan, much more tied to constituent interests. There is political support,” said John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

“[But] so many things have to happen before the first Mars landing mission is feasible that all you can say is, if everything goes as planned, yes, then we will send people to Mars.”

This article was amended on 13 November 2022. An earlier version incorrectly stated the time of the Artemis 1 launch as “four minutes after midnight”, rather than 01:04 EST.

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