Thousands are gathered in and around the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, anxiously waiting for the debut space flight of NASA’s “mega moon rocket” — and, most importantly, its Orion spacecraft, which will head to the moon.
But NASA endured several issues Monday morning. First, it was the unco-operative weather, with thunderstorms delaying the propellant load for the rocket.
Once they had the go-ahead to fill the tanks — which, altogether hold 2,778,492 litres of water, or the equivalent of 41 swimming pools of propellant — they encountered another issue: the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen filling at unacceptable rates relative to one another.
And finally, one of the Space Launch Systems (SLS) — the rocket itself — encountered another problem.
Fuel leaks ultimately forced NASA to scrub the launch of its new moon rocket. The next launch attempt will not take place until Friday at the earliest.
This is the start of the Artemis mission, Artemis I. While there won’t be any crew on board — except for three mannequins and a plush Snoopy — this is a crucial step in returning humans to space.
Artemis II is set to launch in 2024 or 2025, with four astronauts who will orbit the moon, including a Canadian.
The last time anyone was on the moon was in December 1972.
The weather along the Space Coast has been tumultuous to say the least. Over the past week, temperatures have been around 32 C with a humidex of 42 C and thunderstorms. On Saturday, two lightning towers around the rocket were struck three times.
What to expect
In the first 10 minutes after liftoff, a lot happens. The solid rocket boosters separate, the launch abort system jettisons and the core stage — the big orange tank — separates and falls back to Earth. At 8:51 ET Orion’s solar arrays, used to power the spacecraft, deploy, which will take roughly 12 minutes.
Then Orion needs to get into position to head on course to the moon. To do this, there are several manoeuvres, which continue throughout the day, which NASA will be watching very closely.
If all goes well, Orion will be on an outbound trip to the moon that will continue five days after launch. When it gets there, it has to move into a very particular orbit which will take a further three days.
Finally, 35 days after Orion left Earth, the spacecraft will begin its trip home, where it is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego on October 10.
After Orion returns home, NASA will evaluate all the systems and tests they conducted along the way, preparing for Artemis II.
Canadian Space Agency astronauts Jeremy Hansen and Joshua Kutryk — one of four Canadian astronauts who may be on that Artemis II mission — were at the Kennedy Space Center ahead of the launch and said that the Artemis I mission is just the first step.
“In the end we will go back to the moon, but it is completely different this time. Not only are we going to a different location, there’s going to be new science, new technology, but we also have our eyes on Mars,” Hansen said.
“This is a proving ground to take humanity into deep space. This is just the first steps of something much, much grander.”
Kutryk was keen to point out that this isn’t just a U.S. effort.
“This isn’t just NASA … this is a world effort. This is NASA leading the world along to go out and accomplish these really hard challenges to try to set up – not just a U.S. – but a human presence on the moon and then eventually on Mars,” Kutryk said.
“So it’s very different in that respect and it’s very important in that respect that we’re bringing the world along.”