See NASA’s mammoth moon rocket lift off for the first time

NASA SLS rocket on launch pad

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket stands on its launch pad in Florida. (Photo via Boeing Space/Twitter)

More than 100,000 people are expected to descend on Florida’s Space Coast Monday morning to watch NASA’s most powerful rocket lift off on a history-making Artemis 1 mission to the Moon and beyond – but if you can’t make it in person, watch the launch Online might be the next best thing.

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is scheduled to lift off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B at 8:33 a.m. ET (5:33 a.m. PT) Monday at the start of a two-hour launch window. Forecasters say there is an 80 percent chance of acceptable weather early in the window, falling to 60 percent by the end.

No significant issues have emerged during the countdown, Senior Test Director Jeff Spalding said today. “We are prepared for anything,” he told reporters. But if weather or technical issues force a postponement, September 2nd and 5th are the backup dates for launch.

Streaming video coverage is scheduled to begin tonight at 9:00 p.m. PT on NASA TV with commentary on the SLS refueling operation. Coverage is in full swing Monday at 3:30 p.m. PT. (Check out the full schedule.)

The Artemis 1 mission will require the first-ever SLS launch to send an unmanned Orion spacecraft on a 42-day test flight that will encompass a long-range lunar orbit going up to 62 miles from the Moon and up to 40,000 miles beyond the Moon. That will set a distance record for any spacecraft designed to carry astronauts.

At the end of the mission, the Orion capsule will be returning to Earth at 25,000 miles per hour and heading for a splashdown in the Pacific. One of Artemis 1’s primary goals is to test the performance of Orion’s heat shield at atmospheric re-entry temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

NASA and its commercial partners have been working towards this flight for more than a decade. Artemis 1 represents the first real test of the SLS Orion system and sets the stage for the manned lunar orbit of Artemis 2 in the 2024 timeframe and the manned lunar landing of Artemis 3 in 2025 or 2026.

Just watching the launch should be a thrill – and if you’re watching at home, make sure you turn the volume up. “Put that down first: It’s going to get loud,” NASA chief SLS engineer John Blevins told Florida Today. With launch thrust of 8.8 million pounds, the SLS is 15% more powerful than the Apollo-era Saturn V rocket.

Before the fireworks, there will be plenty of star power at the countdown: Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff will be in attendance. Singer Josh Grobin will perform the national anthem along with pianist Herbie Hancock, the Philadelphia Orchestra and cellist Yo-Yo Ma will perform “America the Beautiful,” and actors Jack Black and Chris Evans will also be part of the show.

Why all the flag waving? It’s only natural to make a big deal out of the first launch of a program designed to put the first woman and first black person on the lunar surface 50 years after Apollo’s last lunar mission. And looking beyond history, this is an opportunity for NASA to grab the spotlight from commercial space companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

SpaceX already has a supporting role with Artemis through its contract to provide the lunar module to the Artemis 3 crew. Blue Origin also hopes to win some of the NASA business for future Artemis missions. But there is a danger that some in Congress will look at the cumulative cost of the Artemis program (recently estimated at $93 billion by 2025) – and wonder if SpaceX’s Starship super rocket, for example, will do all the work at a lower cost could do. A crowd-pleasing success for the SLS could forestall these kinds of doubts.

Bhavya Lal, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Technology, Policy and Strategy, stressed during a prelaunch briefing that Artemis 1 will help lay the foundations for more than a decade of exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond.

“What we are beginning with Monday’s launch is not a short-term sprint, but a long-term marathon to bring the solar system and beyond into our sphere,” she said.

The experiments packaged aboard Artemis 1 point to this long-term perspective.

Although no humans will be traveling on this Orion spacecraft, three instrumented mannequins — led by a manikin nicknamed Commander Moonikin Campos — will collect data on environmental conditions during the voyage. Working with NASA, Cisco and Lockheed Martin, Amazon is flying an Alexa-style voice assistant called Callisto, which could provide information (and guidance) for future crews heading to the Moon or Mars.

The SLS rocket will also carry 10 nanosatellites as secondary scientific research payloads, including a Japanese probe that will attempt to make an airbag-cushioned landing on the moon.

As impressive as Monday’s launch promises to be, Artemis 1 is about much more than a Big Bang.

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