Artemis I: “Go For Launch” on August 29

Artemis I: “Go For Launch” on August 29

NASA confirmed tonight that the launch of Artemis I, the uncrewed test flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, is on track for August 29, one week from today. A day-long Flight Readiness Review concluded that everything is as ready as it can be, but officials stressed this is a test flight and “is not without risk.”

The Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft at Launch Complex-39B with its destination, the Moon, looking on. June 14, 2022.  Photo credit: NASA/Cory Huston

Bob Cabana, NASA’s Associate Administrator and a former astronaut and former Director of Kennedy Space Center, announced the news at an 8:00 pm ET press conference following completion of the FRR an hour later than planned. “We are go for launch.”

“This day has been a long time coming,” he added.

Indeed, that is true both for SLS/Orion specifically and more generally for the country’s efforts to return humans to the Moon. This is an uncrewed test flight, but if all goes well a four-person crew will fly around the Moon on the next one in 2024. Then in 2025, two astronauts will step foot on the Moon 53 years after the last Apollo crew left.

Artemis is Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology and NASA sees the Artemis program as the beginning of long-term “sustainable” lunar exploration that will set the stage for humans on Mars. This time it will be not only white American men who make the journey, but women, people of color, and international partners.

Efforts to return humans to the Moon have waxed and waned over the decades. Even when Congress and the Executive Branch agreed on the goal, as they did during President George W. Bush’s Administration, finding the money proved an uphill battle. President Barack Obama saw no need to return to the Moon, instead wanting to push on to Mars using an asteroid as a stepping stone. He canceled Bush’s Moon-to-Mars Constellation program, but Congress directed NASA to build a rocket, SLS, and a Multi-Purpose Crew Module, Orion (retained from Constellation), in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act to take people to destinations beyond low Earth orbit, whatever they might be.

At first NASA projected SLS/Orion would be ready by 2017, but by the time it was ready to make a formal commitment in 2014, the promised launch date was November 2018. That slipped to December 2019-June 2020, then to mid-late 2021, and now to August 2022.

The Government Accountability Office’s most recent review of NASA’s major programs shows development of SLS as 42 months behind schedule and $2.7 billion (42.5 percent) over cost. Orion began in 2006 as part of Constellation, but its baseline cost and schedule have been revised periodically. Using the most recent revision in August 2021, Orion is 13 months behind schedule and $2.5 billion (37.4 percent) over cost.

Now, finally, the SLS/Orion system is ready for its first launch. Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage (derived from the space shuttle’s External Tank) with RS-25 engines (left over from the space shuttle program) provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne and Solid Rocket Boosters from Northrop Grumman similar to those used for the space shuttle. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion. Orion’s Service Module is provided by the European Space Agency with Airbus as the prime contractor.

The FRR cleared launch for August 29 at 8:33 am ET, the opening of a two-hour launch window. If launch takes place that day, Orion will spend five days traveling to the Moon getting as close as 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the surface and then enter a Distant Retrograde Orbit 40,000 miles (70,000 kilometers) from the Moon before returning to Earth 42 days later and splashing down in the ocean off San Diego on October 10.

Launches can be delayed for many reasons, especially the first launch of a new vehicle. Backup opportunities are on September 2 and September 5. After that, they have to wait until mid-September until the Moon and Earth are aligned properly once again to meet mission criteria such as ensuring the Orion spacecraft returns to Earth in daylight.

Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson said her teams are “finishing up our processing and working hard to get us to our Call to Stations which is planned for Saturday morning.”

NASA officials brief the media following the Artemis I Flight Readiness Review at Kennedy Space Center (L-R): Megan Cruz, KSC Public Affairs; Bob Cabana, Associate Administrator; Janet Petro, KSC Center Director; Jim Free, Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development; Mike Sarafin, Artemis Mission Manager; Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, Artemis Launch Director; Howard Hu, Orion Program Manager; Chris Ciancola, SLS Deputy Program Manager. Screenshot from NASA TV.

Blackwell-Thompson presided over two Wet Dress Rehearsals in April and June, but various problems emerged that prevented getting all the way down to T-9.4 seconds as intended. They got only to T-29 seconds. She pointed out today “there’s a lot of dynamics that happen as you get down close to engine start,” a reminder that a scrub would not be all that surprising.

SLS is derived from the space shuttle. In fact, the four RS-25 engines on this launch are “flight proven” having flown on various space shuttle flights already. Several shuttle launches aborted with just seconds to go, including STS-68 that stopped at 1.9 seconds before liftoff when the computer detected a fault.

Cabana repeatedly emphasized this is a test flight.

“This is a test flight, all right? And it’s not without risk. We have analyzed the risk as best we can and we’ve mitigated also as best we can. But we are stressing Orion beyond what it was actually designed for in preparation for sending it to the Moon with a crew and we want to make sure that it works absolutely perfectly when we do that and that we understand all the risks. We’re going to learn a lot from this test flight. There are certain cases that could come up that could cause us to come home early. And that’s OK.” — Bob Cabana

NASA has a number of press briefings this week leading up to launch that will be broadcast on NASA TV as will the launch itself.

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