The Moon before Mars: NASA's new mega-rocket takes off on Monday

The Moon Before Mars: NASA's New Mega-Rocket Launches glue Monday


A six-week mission in space, in the works for more than a decade, launched in front of tens of thousands of spectators: NASA's new rocket, the most powerful in the world, is due to take off Monday for the first time from Florida, heading to the Moon. 

Fifty years after the last Apollo flight, the Artemis 1 mission should mark the launch of the American program to return to the Moon, which should allow humanity to then reach Mars, at aboard the same ship.

The Orion capsule, tested here without a crew, will be rocketed into orbit around the Moon, to verify that the vehicle is safe for future astronauts — including the first woman and first person of color to walk on the lunar surface .

“This mission carries the dreams and hopes of many people,” said NASA boss Bill Nelson. “We are now the Artemis generation.”

Takeoff is scheduled for 8:33 a.m. (12:33 p.m. GMT, 2:33 p.m. in France) from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.

The weather is 80% favorable for an on-time launch, at the start of the two-hour firing window. From its height of 98 meters, the orange and white rocket SLS will not be able to take off in the event of rain or thunderstorms.

Its tanks must be filled during the night from Sunday to Monday with more than three million liters of fuel — liquid hydrogen and oxygen. 

As a sign of the times, NASA's first female launch director, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, will give the final go-ahead . Women make up 30% of launch room staff — compared to just one at the time of Apollo 11.

Two minutes after takeoff, the boosters will fall back into the Atlantic. After eight minutes, the main stage will detach in turn. Then, after about an hour and a half, a final push from the upper stage will put the capsule on its way to the Moon, which it will take several days to reach.

Between 100,000 and 200,000 people are expected to attend the show, including Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris.

Distance record

In addition to the weather, technical problems could cause takeoff to be postponed until the last moment, NASA officials have warned, insisting that this is a test flight.

The next possible lift-off date is September 2.

The main objective of the mission is to test the heat shield of the capsule, which will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere at nearly 40,000 km/h, and a temperature half as hot as the surface of the Sun.

Instead of astronauts, mannequins took place on board, equipped with sensors recording vibrations and radiation levels. Microsatellites will also be deployed to study the Moon, or even an asteroid.

On-board cameras will make it possible to follow this 42-day trip in total.

The capsule will venture as far as '64,000 km behind the Moon, farther than any other habitable spacecraft so far.

A complete failure of the mission would be devastating for a rocket with a huge budget (4.1 billion per launch, according to a public audit) and several years late (ordered in 2010 by the United States Congress for an initial take-off date in 2017) .

Living on the Moon

“What we are starting with this take-off on Monday is not a short-term sprint, but a long-term marathon duration, to bring the solar system, and beyond, back into our sphere,” said NASA associate administrator Bhavya Lal with aplomb.

After this first mission, Artémis 2 will carry astronauts to the Moon in 2024, without landing there. An honor reserved for the crew of Artemis 3, in 2025 at the earliest. NASA then wants to launch about one mission per year.

The goal: to establish a lasting human presence on the Moon, with the construction of a space station in orbit around it (Gateway), and d a base on the surface.

There humanity must learn to live in deep space and test all the technologies necessary for a return trip to Mars.

A journey of several years which could take place “at the end of the 2030s”, according to Bill Nelson.

But before that, going to the Moon is also strategic, faced with the ambitions of competing nations, in particular China.

“We want to go to the South Pole (of the Moon, editor’s note), where the resources are”, in particular water in the form of ice, detailed Mr. Nelson on NBC . “We don't want China to go there and say 'this is our territory'.”