The main fuel tanks of NASA’s Artemis moon rocket are filled for the first launch

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Nov 15 (Reuters) – Ground crew at Kennedy Space Center filled the main fuel tanks of NASA’s massive next-generation moon rocket on Tuesday for its maiden launch, a flight to kick off the program Artemis from the US Space Agency. 50 years after the last Apollo lunar mission.

The 32-story Space Launch System (SLS) rocket was scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 1:04 a.m. EST (0604 GMT) on Wednesday to send its Orion capsule on a 25-day test flight around the moon and back. without astronauts on board.

NASA officials on Monday gave the “go” to continue flight preparations after 10 weeks plagued by multiple technical difficulties, back-to-back hurricanes and two excursions that brought the spacecraft out of its hangar at the launch pad.

Late in the countdown on Tuesday night, a hydrogen line leak was detected, leading NASA officials to send a “red team” of technicians to the launch pad to tighten a loose valve connection. . The ploy worked and the leak was fixed, NASA said.

Around the same time, crews overseeing the launch complex rushed to replace a malfunctioning internet connection, knocking a crucial radar system offline.

Launch attempts on August 29 and September 3 were aborted due to leaking fuel lines and other technical issues that NASA has since resolved. While docked at its launch pad last week, the rocket encountered high winds and rain from Hurricane Nicole, forcing a two-day flight postponement.

Weather is always a factor beyond NASA’s control. The latest forecast called for an 80% chance of favorable conditions during Wednesday’s two-hour launch window, NASA said.

On Tuesday afternoon, launch crews began the long and delicate process of loading the rocket’s core stage fuel tanks with hundreds of thousands of gallons of supercooled liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellant. .

About five hours before liftoff, those tanks were filled, marking a “major milestone” in launch preparations, a NASA spokesperson said. Crews continued to periodically refill the tanks to replenish small amounts of propellant as the liquid gases gradually evaporated as vapor.

Dubbed Artemis I, the mission marks the first flight of the SLS rocket and the Orion capsule together, built by Boeing Co (BA.N) and Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N), respectively, under contract with NASA.

It also signals a major shift in direction for NASA’s post-Apollo human spaceflight program after decades focused on low Earth orbit with space shuttles and the International Space Station. (See graph)


Named after the ancient Greek goddess of the hunt – and twin sister of Apollo – Artemis aims to bring astronauts back to the surface of the moon as early as 2025.

Twelve astronauts walked on the moon during six Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972, the only spaceflights to still place humans on the lunar surface. But Apollo, born out of the US-Soviet Cold War-era space race, was less science-driven than Artemis.

The new moon program has enlisted commercial partners such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and space agencies in Europe, Canada and Japan to eventually establish a long-term lunar base as a springboard to even more ambitious human journeys to March.

Getting the SLS-Orion spacecraft off the ground is a key first step. Its maiden voyage is meant to put the vehicle through its paces in a rigorous test flight, pushing its design limits to prove the spacecraft is fit to fly astronauts.

If the mission is successful, a crewed flight of Artemis II around the moon could take place as soon as 2024, followed in a few years by the program’s first lunar landing of astronauts, including a woman, with Artemis III.

Considered the most powerful and complex rocket in the world, the SLS represents the largest new vertical launch system NASA has built since the Apollo-era Saturn V.

Barring any last-minute glitches, the launch countdown should end with the ignition of the rocket’s four main R-25 engines and its two solid rocket boosters, sending the spacecraft hurtling skyward.

About 90 minutes after liftoff, the rocket’s upper stage will propel Orion out of Earth orbit on course for a 25-day flight that will bring it within 60 miles (97 km) of the lunar surface before to sail 40,000 miles (64,374 km) beyond the moon and back to Earth. The capsule is scheduled to land on December 11.

Although no one is on board, Orion will carry a simulated crew of three – one male and two female mannequins – equipped with sensors to measure radiation levels and other stresses the astronauts would experience.

One of the main goals is to test the durability of Orion’s heat shield during re-entry as it hits Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles (39,429 km) per hour, or 32 times the speed of sound. on its return from lunar orbit – much faster than re-entries from the space station.

The heat shield is designed to resist reentry friction that is expected to raise temperatures outside the capsule to nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius).

Over a decade of development with years of delays and budget overruns, the SLS-Orion spacecraft has so far cost NASA at least $37 billion, including design, construction, testing and ground facilities. NASA’s Office of Inspector General has projected the total cost of Artemis at $93 billion by 2025.

NASA calls the program a boon to space exploration that has generated tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in trade.

Reporting by Joey Roulette in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Will Dunham and Gerry Doyle

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