Explainer: NASA tests Crescent rocket 50 years after Apollo

Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s Crescent rocket, years late and billions of dollars over budget, will conduct a high-stakes test flight next week before astronauts reach the summit.

Fifty years after NASA’s famous Apollo moon landings, the 322-foot (98-meter) rocket will attempt to send an empty crew capsule into distant lunar orbit.

If all goes well, astronauts could fly around the moon as early as 2024, and NASA aims to have two people on the lunar surface by the end of 2025.

Liftoff is scheduled for Monday morning from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

NASA officials have warned that the six-week test flight is risky and could be cut short if something goes wrong.

“We’re going to put pressure on it and test it. We’re going to make it do things that we would never have a crew do to try to keep it as safe as possible,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press on Wednesday .

There’s a lot going on in this trial run, said the retired founder of the George Washington University Space Policy Institute. He noted that if things go south, rising costs and a long-term gap between tasks will lead to a tough comeback.

“This should be the first step in an ongoing program of human exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond,” said John Logsdon. “In the face of major failures, does the United States have the will to move forward?”

Price tag for this single mission: over $4 billion. Add it all up from the start of the program a decade ago to the moon landing in 2025, and there’s a much more staggering figure: $93 billion.

This is an outline of the first flight planned by Artemis, named after the twin sisters from Apollo mythology.

rocket power

The new rocket is shorter and thinner than the Saturn V rocket that sent 24 Apollo astronauts to the moon half a century ago. But it’s more powerful, delivering 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust. It’s called the Space Launch System Rocket, or SLS for short, but a less bulky name is being discussed, according to Nielsen. Unlike the streamlined Saturn V, the new rocket has a pair of strap-on boosters converted from NASA’s space shuttle. The booster will peel off after two minutes, like a space shuttle booster, but won’t be fished from the Atlantic for reuse. The core stage will continue to launch before breaking apart and crashing into the Pacific Ocean. Two hours after liftoff, the upper stage will launch the capsule Orion and fly to the moon.

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moon ship

NASA’s high-tech autonomous Orion capsule is named after the brightest constellation in the night sky. At 11 feet (3 meters) tall, it’s more spacious than Apollo’s capsules and can hold four astronauts instead of three. During this test flight, a full-size dummy in an orange flight suit will occupy the commander’s seat, equipped with vibration and acceleration sensors. Two other mannequins made from materials that mimic human tissue — a head and a female torso, but no limbs — will measure cosmic radiation, one of the biggest risks of spaceflight. A torso is testing a protective vest from Israel. Unlike rockets, Orion has been launched before, orbiting the Earth twice in 2014. This time, ESA’s service module will be connected via four wings for propulsion and solar power.

Flight Plan

Orion’s flight, which should last six weeks, lift off from Florida to splash down in the Pacific, is twice as long as astronaut travel to tax the system. It will take nearly a week to reach the Moon, which is 240,000 miles (386,000 kilometers) away. After orbiting the moon, the capsule will enter a distant orbit with an apogee of 38,000 miles (61,000 kilometers). That would put Orion at 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) from Earth, farther than Apollo. The big test came at the end of the mission, when Orion hit the atmosphere at 25,000 mph (40,000 km/h), heading for the Pacific Ocean to splash down. The heat shield uses the same material as the Apollo capsule and can withstand reentry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,750 degrees Celsius). But advanced designs anticipate faster, hotter returns for future Mars crews.

free rider

In addition to the three test dummies, the flight featured a large number of stowaways for deep space research. Once Orion flies to the moon, ten shoebox-sized moons will pop out. The problem is that these so-called CubeSats were installed on rockets a year ago, and half of their batteries could not be recharged due to persistent delays in the launch. Given the low-cost, high-risk nature of these microsatellites, NASA expects some of them to fail. Radiometric cubesats should be fine. Also clear: a solar sail demonstration for an asteroid. In a Back to the Future tribute, Orion will carry several pieces of moon rocks collected by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969, as well as bolts from a decade-old rocket engine salvaged from the sea forward. According to NASA, Aldrin did not participate in the launch, but three of his former colleagues will be: Walter Cunningham of Apollo 7, Tom Stafford of Apollo 10 and Apollo 17 Harrison Schmidt, the penultimate man to walk on the moon.

Apollo vs.Artemis

More than 50 years later, Apollo is still NASA’s greatest achievement. Using 1960s technology, it took NASA just eight years from launching the first astronaut Alan Shepard to the moon landings of Armstrong and Aldrin. By contrast, Artemis has dragged on for more than a decade, despite being built on a short-lived lunar exploration program called Constellation. From 1969 to 1972, 12 Apollo astronauts walked on the moon, staying no more than three days at a time. For Artemis, NASA will draw money from a diverse pool of 42 astronauts and extend the time astronauts spend on the moon to at least a week. The goal is to create a long-term lunar presence that would lubricate people to Mars. NASA’s Nelson promises to announce the first Artemis lunar crew once Orion returns to Earth.

what’s next

There’s still a lot of work to be done before astronauts set foot on the moon again. A second test flight will send four astronauts back to the moon and back in 2024. About a year later, NASA aims to send four more astronauts, two of whom land on the moon’s south pole. Orion doesn’t have its own lunar lander like the Apollo spacecraft, so NASA hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to provide it with the Starship spacecraft for the first Artemis moon landing. Two other private companies are developing moonwalking suits. The sci-fi-style starship will connect with Orion on the moon, bring the two astronauts to the surface, and return to the capsule to go home. Starship has only soared six miles (10 kilometers) so far. Musk wants to launch a Starship around Earth with SpaceX’s Super Heavy booster before trying to land on the moon without a crew. One hurdle: Before heading to the moon, the starship needs to be refueled in Earth’s orbiting fuel depot.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Division was supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Division of Science Education. The Associated Press is solely responsible for all content.

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