Artemis I is heading toward the moon

Artemis I is heading toward the moon
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Artemis I is heading toward the moon, blazing a trail for NASA’s next era of space exploration.

NASA’s majestic new rocket soared into space for the first time in the early hours of Wednesday, lighting up the night sky and accelerating on a journey that will take an astronaut-less capsule around the moon and back.

This flight, evoking the bygone Apollo era, is a crucial test for NASA’s Artemis program that aims to put astronauts, after five decades of loitering in low-Earth orbit, back on the moon.

For NASA, the mission ushers in a new era of lunar exploration, one that seeks to unravel scientific mysteries in the shadows of craters in the polar regions, test technologies for dreamed-of journeys to Mars and spur private enterprise to chase new entrepreneurial frontiers farther out in the solar system.

At around 1:47 a.m. Eastern time, the four engines on the rocket’s core stage ignited, along with two skinnier side boosters. As the countdown hit zero, clamps holding the rocket down let go, and the vehicle slipped Earth’s bonds.

A few minutes later, the side boosters and then the giant core stage dropped away. The rocket’s upper engine then ignited to carry the Orion spacecraft, where astronauts will sit during later missions, toward orbit.

Less than the two hours after launch, the upper stage will fire one last time to send Orion on a path toward the moon. On Monday, Orion will pass within 60 miles of the moon’s surface. After going around the moon for a couple of weeks, Orion will head back to Earth, splashing down on Dec. 11 in the Pacific Ocean, about 60 miles off the coast of California.

The launch occurred years behind schedule, and billions of dollars over budget. The delays and cost overruns of S.L.S. and Orion highlight the shortcomings of how NASA has managed its programs

The next Artemis mission, which is to take four astronauts on a journey around the moon but not to the surface, will launch no earlier than 2024. Artemis III, in which two astronauts will land near the moon’s south pole, is currently scheduled for 2025, though that date is very likely to slip further into the future.

Still, the sprawling expense of Artemis might be the cost of sustaining political support for a space program in a federal democracy, said Casey Dreier, the chief policy adviser for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit that promotes exploration of space. Even if Artemis is not the best or most efficient design, it provides jobs to the employees of NASA and aerospace companies across the country, he said. That provides continuing political support for the moon program.

“Congress has done nothing but add more money to Artemis every single year it’s been in existence,” Mr. Dreier said.

While private spaceflight proponents believe their approach will prevail, no one in Congress has yet pushed for canceling S.L.S. or Orion. The CHIPS and Science Act, recently signed into law by President Biden, calls for NASA to include the vehicles in plans to send astronauts to Mars, and directs the agency to launch S.L.S. at least once a year.

NASA is currently negotiating with the rocket’s manufacturers for up to 20 more launches.

“I think the program itself is shaping up to be very politically sustainable,” Mr. Dreier said. “I challenge people to show me the public anger about the S.L.S. program and how it translates to political pressure to cancel it. And I just don’t see it.”

Source: The New York Times

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