Fifty years after Apollo’s last flight, the time has come for Artemis to take over: The most powerful rocket in the world is about to make its maiden flight on Monday from Florida (USA). ), and at the same time launch the American program to return to the moon.
It is admittedly a test flight, with no crew on board. But for NASA, which has been preparing for this launch for more than a decade, the event is highly symbolic. He must embody the future of the space agency and prove that it is still able to compete, especially against the ambitions of China or SpaceX.
Around Cape Canaveral, hotels are full and between 100,000 and 200,000 people are expected to watch the show, scheduled for 8:33 a.m. local time Monday.
From the top of its 98 meters, the orange-white machine has already been enthroned for a week on launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.
Since its release, “you can feel the excitement, the energy has gone up a notch, it’s really palpable,” center director Janet Petro told a news conference.
Only mannequins are on board
The purpose of this mission, called Artémis 1, is to test the SLS rocket (for the Space Launch System) in real conditions, and the Orion capsule at its summit, where the astronauts will take place in the future. For this time, only dummies are on board, equipped with sensors to detect vibrations and radiation levels. Cameras on board make it possible to follow this journey over a total of 42 days. A spectacular selfie with the Earth and the Moon in the background is on the program. Once in orbit, Orion will circle one and a half times around the Moon (380,000 km away) and venture up to 64,000 km behind it, further than any other habitable spacecraft to date.
The main purpose is to test its heat shield, which on its return to the Earth’s atmosphere must withstand a speed of almost 40,000 km/h and a temperature half as hot as the Sun’s surface.
Thousands of people have contributed to this mission in the 50 US states and several European countries.
All space enthusiasts are now hanging on the weather, which can be capricious at this time of year. For example, take-off cannot take place in rainy weather. On Monday, the shooting window stretches over two hours, with fallback dates planned for September 2 or 5.
Apart from this uncontrollable factor, everything is clear: Nasa officials have given the green light for launch after a final detailed inspection. Which doesn’t mean everything will go smoothly during the flight, they warned. “We’re doing something incredibly difficult and it has inherent risks,” said Mike Sarafin, who is in charge of the mission. Despite several preliminary tests, the various elements of the capsule and the rocket (which cannot be reused) will fly together for the first time. Which could hold surprises.
NASA has promised to push the vehicle to its limits. For example, the mission will continue even if Orion’s solar panels do not deploy as planned – a risk that would not be taken with a crew. But a complete failure would remain devastating, for a rocket with a huge budget ($4.1 billion per launch, according to a public audit) and late (ordered by the US Congress in 2010, with a launch expected in 2017).
While the Apollo program allowed only white men to walk on the Moon, the Artemis program plans to send the first woman and the first person of color there.
After this first mission, Artemis 2 will carry astronauts into orbit around the Moon without landing there. That honor will be reserved for the crew of Artemis 3, which is scheduled for 2025 at the earliest.
But why exactly repeat what has already been done? This time the Moon will really only be a stepping stone to Mars.
Unlike the standalone Apollo missions, the goal of Artemis is to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon with the construction of a space station in orbit around it (Gateway) and a base on the surface.
All the technologies needed to send humans to the Red Planet must be tested there. And Gateway will serve as a stopover and refueling station before this long journey of at least several months.
“I think (the Artemis program) will inspire even more than Apollo did,” said Bob Cabana, a former astronaut now an associate administrator at NASA. “It will be absolutely fantastic. »