CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA – NASA launched a critical countdown test last Friday for its new lunar rocket, a 30-story giant that could make its first lunar test flight this summer.
The two-day demonstration – the last major milestone before taking off for the moon – will culminate on Sunday as teams load nearly 1 million liters of super-cold fuel into the rocket on the pad. The countdown will stop at the 9-second mark before the engines start.
NASA plans to set a launch date after analyzing the results of the general rehearsal for the Space Launch System rocket – SLS for short.
Officials have indicated that the rocket could explode as early as June and send the attached Orion crew capsule in the direction of the moon. The capsule will spend at least one month in space before returning to Earth.
No one will be on board the first lunar image since NASA’s Apollo lunar landings half a century ago. Astronauts will brace themselves for the second test flight scheduled for 2024, which goes around the moon and back. It would pave the way for astronauts to land on the moon around 2025, according to NASA.
However, the US Government Accountability Office recently warned that technical challenges remain – mainly with the lunar lander and spacesuits – which could further delay the lunar landing, already several years behind schedule. GAO also cited billions in escalating costs.
At 98 meters high, the rocket made its debut at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad two weeks ago. Since then, all of its systems have been turned on in preparation for this weekend’s test. Officials stressed that possible thunderstorms or technical problems could delay the rehearsal.
NASA promised to provide updates throughout the weekend, but the public will not be able to listen. The space agency referred to security issues.
“We are cautious – an abundance of caution – and it is especially in the environment we are in today,” said Tom Whitmeyer, head of NASA’s exploration development system.
NASA expects to announce the crews for the first lunar missions this summer. The pool of candidates includes nine men and nine women; two are at the International Space Station and two will arrive there in a few weeks.
Twenty-four astronauts flew to the moon during Apollo from 1968 to 1972; 12 landed on the moon’s surface.
Unlike Apollo, NASA collaborates with private companies for its lunar program, named Artemis after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology. While NASA’s rocket and capsule will get astronauts into lunar orbit, SpaceX’s Starship will continue to carry them to the surface of the moon, at least for the first mission. NASA is looking for additional companies for later landings.
The space agency’s goal is to develop a sustainable lunar presence and then aim for Mars. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson recently cited 2040 as the target of a Mars expedition with astronauts.
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