CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The first trip to the moon for NASA’s new rocket has one more major hurdle, but it’s taking the jump nice and slow as Artemis I began its 4.4-mile journey with a top speed of 0.8 mph to the launch pad Thursday.
The 5.75-million-pound, 322-foot-tall combination of the Space Launch System, Orion capsule and mobile launcher were placed on NASA’s crawler-transporter 2 for the 11-hour trip that began just before 6 p.m. to Launch Pad 39-B, where mission managers plan on doing a wet dress rehearsal within the next month.
Thousands crowded the parking lots and open fields surrounding the Vehicle Assembly Building cheering as NASA Administrator Bill Nelson spoke with the towering hardware in the background.
“There’s no doubt that we are in a golden era of human space exploration, discovery and ingenuity in space, and it all begins with Artemis I,” he said, thanking the NASA employees and family members gathered for the event. “Our workforce has been a relentless spirit. We imagine. We build. We never stop pushing the envelope of what is possible.”
Also speaking was Kennedy Space Center director Janet Petro, who pointed out Artemis was following in the trail of 60 years of space exploration.
“You know every single vehicle that has carried humans beyond the bounds of low-Earth orbit has undergone integration and testing in that Vehicle Assembly Building, crawled down this roadway and launched right here from the Kennedy Space Center,” she said. “Tonight, after years of meticulous planning, development, integration, testing, the Space Launch System mated with the Orion spacecraft will continue this proud tradition leaving the VAB.”
Ahead of the speech, Nelson met with reporters alongside Apollo 10 astronaut Gen. Thomas Stafford, now 91, and NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman and Drew Feustel.
“Here’s the Apollo Generation. Here’s the Artemis generation,” Nelson said. “We are entering the Artemis generation. You’re going to see the first glimpse of it today, and we’re going back to the moon. We’re going to learn and live on the moon, and we’re going to Mars. And we’re doing it in a new way from the way they did back in Apollo.”
Stafford, who was also on two Gemini flights and the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975, said although Artemis looks similar to the Apollo missions of the 1960s and ‘70s, it really does not feel the same.
“We were in a hell of a race with the Soviet Union,” he said. “In nine months, we flew five missions, and four of those were on the giant Saturn V and three to the moon. We had both parties 100% all behind us because this was the Soviet Union. Now it’s a whole different ballgame.”
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Stafford praised Nelson’s hand in getting some bipartisan support to keep the Artemis program moving forward. Nelson credited commitment from both sides of the political aisle as well.
“Artemis personifies why NASA needs continuity and purpose,” he said. “Our missions were not achieved by a single administration but across many administrations. I’m proud President Biden has show strong support for these missions and every breakthrough should be seen as a triumph for our country and all of humanity.
“And when the next humans walk on the moon, I hope that every single child around the world, I hope they see themselves in this new generation of explorers.”
The Artemis missions will surpass the power of the Saturn V rockets of the Apollo program, producing 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. Originally to have launched in 2016, the SLS and Orion hardware have seen several cost and production delays, which have had a domino effect on future Artemis missions.
The next possible windows for the Artemis I launch are from May 7-21, June 6-16 and June 29-July 12, but mission managers don’t want to target any date until after the results of the test, although Nelson said that even if all goes well, June was the more likely target.
NASA is now planning the Artemis II flight, which will take humans in an orbit around the moon without landing, for no earlier than May 2024. The Artemis III mission, which would use a Human Landing System, currently contracted to SpaceX using a version of its Starship spacecraft, will bring two astronauts to the lunar surface. That mission is now planned for no earlier than 2025.
Stafford, though, warns that the delays are worth it for safety’s sake.
“From my experience, the worst thing you can have is an on-time failure,” he said.
But before liftoff, NASA has to complete launch pad testing, including filling and draining the core stage with 730,000 gallons of super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen while simulating a countdown but without lighting the engines. That tanking test is targeting April 3.
“When you see this rocket, it’s not just a piece of metal that can sit at the pad,” said Tom Whitmeyer, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development. “It’s a whole bunch of people — rocket scientists — throughout this country, throughout our agency that have worked on this, and on behalf of them we’re really proud to present it to everybody else.”
It will be the first time all the parts from NASA’s various contractors including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Aerojet Rocketdyne have been fit together for integrated testing on the launch pad.
“This is a flagship rocket you’re about to see. It’s a symbol of our country, our communities, our aerospace economy, and once again, the partnership behind it,” Whitmeyer said, noting rollback will happen about eight or nine days after the tanking tests.
If all goes well, it will make one last trip to the launch pad and travel to the moon and back. The flight with no crew aboard is the first of many planned missions with the goal of returning humans, including the first woman, to the lunar surface.
While no humans are flying, it will carry three surrogate mannequins to test radiation levels during flight. Nelson said two representing females are named Zohar and Helga, while a third — Commander Moonikin Campos — was named after more than 300,000 people voted to honor the late Arturo Campos who helped NASA bring the Apollo 13 crew safely back to Earth.
“And a surprise, Snoopy and his orange space suit will hitch a ride,” Nelson said.
Depending on the day it launches, the mission could last either four or six weeks. The plan is to send Orion farther into space than any other human-rated spacecraft has ever traveled — 280,000 miles away, which is 40,000 miles beyond the moon.
“When this monster rocket lifts off it will carry all of our greatest hopes in the heavens,” Nelson said.