Fifty Years After Apollo 17, Bill Nelson Hails NASA’s Return to the Moon

Fifty Years After Apollo 17, Bill Nelson Hails NASA’s Return to the Moon

NASA administrator Bill Nelson has described the upcoming Artemis I mission as “a tremendous turn of history” as the space agency prepares to launch its moon-bound Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for the first time ever.

On Monday morning, the 322-foot tall SLS rocket will finally take to the skies after around 12 years of development. Its mission is essentially a stress test; a demonstration that the rocket and its associated systems will be sufficient to take astronauts safely to the moon and back in just a few years’ time.

Artemis I will see the SLS take the uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a 42-day mission around the moon, during which time it will cover a distance of 1.3 million miles.

“Before we put humans on top, this is a test flight. We stress this one, much more than we do on Artemis II,” Nelson told Newsweek. “We’re going for twice the amount of time that the European Service Module is rated for. It’s rated for 21 days, we’re going for 42 days.

“The main reason for this test, if you had to boil it down to one thing, is we have to test Orion’s heat shield. It’s a new heat shield—does it work? Because if it doesn’t work, it’s a bad day. This thing is coming back hot.”

When it returns, the crew capsule will be put to the ultimate test—handling the heat of re-entry as it slams into Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles per hour.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft consists of the pressurized crew module where up to four astronauts will live and work; the European Service Module, the spacecraft’s powerhouse that is responsible for fuel, propulsion, and electrical power; and the stage adapter, which connects Orion to the SLS rocket.

During Artemis I, Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has ever done without docking to a space station. It will also come back to Earth faster—and therefore hotter—than ever before.

Re-entry won’t be the only challenge. Orion will also have to pass through the Van Allen radiation belt, a zone of energetic charged particles that mostly come from the sun that has the potential to damage circuits and sensors.

The spacecraft will also have to operate in a deep space environment, communicating with Earth via NASA‘s Deep Space Network radio antenna array for days.

Orion will return to Earth after orbiting the moon for around six days, collecting data and allowing mission controllers on Earth to assess its performance.

If the mission is successful, preparation will begin for Artemis II, another trip around the moon enabled by SLS and Orion—this time with astronauts on board. Artemis III, expected to take place in 2025, will see humans land on the Moon for the first time since 1972.

“This is a tremendous turn of history, because we’re going back to the moon after 50 years, to stay, to learn to work, to create, to develop new technologies and new systems and new spacecraft in order to go to Mars,” Nelson said.

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