NASA’s Largest Rocket To Date Is Ready To Launch To The Moon On Monday!

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NASA's acceptance fire test for the Saturn rocket in 1966. The Saturn rocket would become the first and only rocket to land humans on the Moon. Image: NASA

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) successfully finished a flight readiness review of its Artemis 1 mission late in the evening yesterday, as it gears up to establish a regular presence on the Moon. At its post-review conference, NASA officials confirmed that the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is ready to launch this coming Monday, after some final last-minute checks for its engines are completed. The Artemis 1 mission is part of the space agency's Artemis program which aims at establishing a lunar base with the hope of conducting missions to Mars as well.

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During the conference, NASA officials shared details about the upcoming launch and stressed that it was purely a test mission that is designed to evaluate the SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft. The primary objective of the launch is to test Orion, particularly its heatshield, as NASA does not have the testing facilities on Earth that can subject the shield to the extreme temperatures and pressures that it will face as it returns from a Moon mission.

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The conference started out with NASA's associate administrator Mr. Bob Cabana enthusiastically stating that the mission was "go for launch", and that his agency has thoroughly reviewed that SLS. He added that NASA had analyzed and mitigated the risks to the best of its ability and that the agency will stress Orion beyond what the spacecraft was designed for.

There were no "exceptions" or "dissenting opinions" after the review, which are NASA's terms for any worrisome events that a mission might encounter, explained the agency's associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development.

Since the mission will be uncrewed, NASA will test the Orion spacecraft beyond its design limit. Some of the systems that will be stretched beyond their rated limit include Orion's navigation, guidance and propulsion systems.

NASA's Orion spacecraft with its solar panels deployed is rendered flying around the Moon. Image: Liam Yanulis/NASA

The mission will also see NASA 'press through' to the point of translunar injection - the point where Orion is placed on a direct trajectory to the mean. This will result in the agency ignoring several events that would otherwise abort the mission if a crew was present inside the spacecraft. For instance, the Orion will press through to its lunar journey even if one of its solar panels does not deploy, and others will also be ignored unless there is a direct threat to the vehicle.

After it rolled out the SLS and Orion to the launch pad last week, NASA has almost finished preparing the pair for their historic launch. However, some tests remain, explained Ms. Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the launch director of the mission. According to her, these include validating several connector elements between the mobile launcher and the rocket and two tests. These are program-specific engineering tests and some booster servicing activities - with Ms. Blackwell's team already having experience with the latter as part of SLS's wet dress rehearsal which took place earlier this year.

The SLS on NASA's Crawler transporter as part of the rocket's June 2022 wet dress rehearsal. Image: Ben Smegelsky/NASA

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However, key activities set to take place just hours before launch will determine if the SLS takes to the skies on Monday. These activities also fall under Ms. Blackwell's domain, as her team will get to work hours before launch.

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During the conference, she outlined that:

What we'll do is that we'll plan to put that in [Hydrogen kickstart to thermally condition the engines] after we get core stage LH-2 or liquid Hydrogen into replenish. And we'll close the vent valve on the core stage, that puts some pressure on it. We'll go and verify, first off we'll verify the functionality of that four inch QD [QUICK DISCONNECT], where we had the issue during wet dress rehearsal. Verify that that's working correctly. Once we have a predetermined amount of kickstart bleed that about 45 minutes or so, and then we'll get into a vented bleed and then after that we'll do the special prepress test. Normally that wouldn't happen in terminal count, we would have done it in wet dress but we did not get, we were unable to do that because of the issue that we had. And so we have added that into the launch countdown at a quiescent point if you will so that we can understand that part of getting in terminal count where you have a lot of other dynamics in your system.

And then in regard to other open work, I would just say with from a pad flow perspective, we're really down to those two tests we talked bout. We'll get into those tomorrow. One is a, we'll go through and we'll do our safe and arm rotations. We have already completed Howard talked about the late stow work we did this weekend, the Orion hatch closure and so that's behind us so now really we're just looking at that RF testing, the safing arm rotation, the booster servicing and then getting into our launch countdown preps and then into launch countdown proper.

The RS-25 engine during a hot fire test. Image: NASA

During the SLS's last wet dress rehearsal in June, NASA discovered a Hydrogen leak in the segment of the launch tower that is connected to the rocket's core stage. The "Hydrogen kickstart to thermally condition the engines" is also referred to as a "bleed function" in NASA speak.

After the June wet dress rehearsal, NASA's senior technical integration manager for the Exploration Ground Systems Program explained that:

The bleed function is where we take liquid Hydrogen from the core stage and flow it down the engine section to cool down the inlet of the engines. And the thinking is, the criteria is, you gotta have the engines at a specific range of temperature and pressure in order for those engines to start. And so we really had two different things going on in the middle of the tanking. When we're up and stable and replenished we went ahead and tried to activate that bleed function and we found out that we had a Hydrogen leak.

Except for one engine, all others on the SLS are brand new and are the same engine that flew on the Space Shuttle but with upgrades such as those of their flight controllers. While NASA's goal is to send the Orion spacecraft on a lunar orbit, there are alternative mission profiles available as well, with some of these seeing the spacecraft orbit the Earth in low Earth or high Eart orbits or circling the Moon simply to create a lunar return reentry profile.

If the Artemis 1 mission meets all of its testing criteria, then the next mission will be the first crewed launch for the program. While astronauts will not land on the Moon as part of this mission, they will circle around it before returning to Earth. Artemis 3 will be the first lunar landing of the 21st century, and it will see astronauts first dock at NASA's lunar gateway before making their way to the lunar surface in SpaceX's Starship lunar lander.

The launch window for the Artemis 1 mission will open at 8:33 am ET this Monday and will be available for two hours. Following liftoff and lunar injection, the spacecraft will spend 42 days in space before returning to Earth through a unique 'skip' landing profile.

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