NASA plans to launch the Artemis I mission Monday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, sending the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule on a more than month-long journey around the moon. —
The unmanned launch marks the debut of the most powerful rocket ever assembled and marks the start of NASA’s long-awaited return to the lunar surface. It is the first mission in NASA’s Artemis lunar program, which is expected to land the agency’s astronauts on the moon during its third mission in 2025.
While Artemis I will neither carry astronauts nor land on the moon, the mission is critical to demonstrating that NASA’s monster rocket and deep space capsule can deliver on their promised capabilities. Artemis I has been delayed for years and the program is running billions over budget.
NASA’s Artemis I Moon rocket will roll out to Launch Pad Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on August 16, 2022.
Chandan Khanna | ETN | Getty Images
The Artemis I mission represents a crucial turning point in NASA’s lunar plans.
Despite the delays and absorbing much of NASA’s relatively small budget by federal agency standards, the Artemis program has enjoyed strong political support.
Officials estimated in 2012 that the SLS rocket would cost $6 billion to develop, debut in 2017 and carry a price tag of $500 million per launch. But the rocket is only now making its debut, has cost more than $20 billion to develop, and the price tag per launch has risen to $4.1 billion.
NASA’s inspector general, the internal auditor, said earlier this year that Artemis is not the “sustainable” lunar program that agency officials say it is. The watchdog found that more than $40 billion has already been spent on the program and predicted that NASA would spend $93 billion on the effort until 2025 — when the first landing is scheduled.
But even that 2025 date is questionable, according to NASA’s inspector general, who said it’s unlikely that the development technologies needed to land on the moon’s surface will be ready before 2026 at the earliest.
NASA’s Artemis plan also depends on the success of another monster rocket: SpaceX’s Starship. The agency awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract last year to develop a moon-specific version of the rocket to serve as the lunar lander for the Artemis III mission.
SpaceX began testing its Starship spacecraft in earnest in 2019, but that rocket has yet to enter orbit.
A large number of aerospace contractors in the US support the hardware, infrastructure and software for NASA’s Artemis I – Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Jacobs are leading the effort. According to NASA, the Artemis program supports about 70,000 jobs across the country.
Multiple NASA centers are also involved, other than Kennedy as the launch site — including DC Headquarters, Marshall in Alabama, Stennis in Mississippi, Ames in California, and Langley in Virginia.
In the event that technical issues or weather delay the August 29 launch attempt, NASA has scheduled backup launch dates for September 2 and 5.
Here’s what you need to know about the launch:
The rocket: SLS
NASA’s SLS lunar mega rocket atop the Orion spacecraft rolls out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center en route to launch complex 39B for a launch rehearsal on March 17, 2022 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Paul Hennessy | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Standing as high as a skyscraper at 100 meters high, the SLS rocket is a complex vehicle built on technologies used and improved by NASA’s Space Shuttle and Apollo programs.
Fully fueled, the SLS weighs 5.7 million pounds and produces up to 8.8 million pounds of thrust – 15% more than the Saturn V rockets of the last century. SLS uses four liquid fuel RS-25 engines, which flew on the Space Shuttle before being refurbished and upgraded, as well as a few solid rocket boosters.
The core phase of SLS gets its orange color from the thermal protection system that covers it, a spray-on foam insulation. For the first three Artemis missions, NASA is using a variant of SLS known as Block 1. For later missions, NASA plans to roll out an even more powerful variant, known as Block 1B.
The capsule: Orion
NASA’s Orion Spacecraft
NASA’s Orion capsule can carry four astronauts on missions of up to 21 days without docking with another spacecraft. At its core is the crew module, which is designed to withstand the rigors of deep space flying.
After launch, Orion will be fueled and powered by the European Service Module, built by the European Space Agency and contractor Airbus.
For Artemis I, there will be three mannequins in the Orion capsule to collect data through sensors about what astronauts will experience during the journey to and from the moon. The return to Earth will be especially crucial, as Orion will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at about 25,000 miles per hour. A heat shield protects Orion’s exterior, and a set of parachutes will slow it down for a splashy ocean landing
The mission around the moon
NASA’s Artemis I Moon rocket sits on Launch Pad Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 15, 2022.
Eva Marie Uzcategui | ETN | Getty Images
Artemis I will cover approximately 1.3 million miles over the course of 42 days, spanning several stages. After separating from SLS, the capsule will deploy solar panels and begin a multi-day journey to the moon — departing from Earth’s orbit in what’s known as a “trans-lunar injection.”
NASA plans to fly Orion as close as 60 miles above the lunar surface before entering a wide orbit around the lunar body. To return, Orion will use the moon’s gravity to help it move one orbit back into Earth’s orbit.
Orion is expected to crash into the Pacific Ocean — off the coast of San Diego, California — where a team from NASA and Department of Defense personnel will recover the capsule.
In addition to the mannequins aboard the Orion, Artemis I carries various payloads, such as cube satellites, technology demonstrations and scientific research.