To Launch or Not To Launch?

The Artemis 1 mission is finally taking flight and it will be NASA’s hardest journey in years. This unmanned mission will test the limits of the Orion spacecraft in deep space and be the first of the Artemis missions. During this mission, the Orion spacecraft will travel 280,000 miles from Earth in the span of four to six weeks. The Artemis 1 mission will start at the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B in Florida. The Orion and its launch vehicle- the Space Launch System- will launch and stay connected for about 90 seconds, when the core stage engines will shut down and separate from the rocket. The Orion will then make an orbit of the earth while deploying its solar arrays. It will be pushed out of orbit and toward the moon by the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (a device that helps feed liquid hydrogen oxygen into the engine to produce thrust), which will separate from the Orion around two hours after its launch. 

This is not the end for the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, however, as it will now send out many CubeSats -or small satellites- that perform experiments and technological demonstrations in the vicinity of the moon. The Orion spacecraft’s trip to the moon itself will take several days, in which engineers will evaluate and correct the spacecraft’s systems and trajectory if needed. 

Once there, the Orion is set to fly roughly 100 kilometers (62 miles) above the moon and afterward be launched 70,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) from the moon by its gravitational force. Subsequently, Orion will orbit the moon for about six days, being assessed by mission controllers and collecting data in the meantime. 

After orbiting, there will be another close surface flyby when the Orion will go within 60 miles of the moon, and then accelerate back towards Earth. The Orion spacecraft will be moving at 25,000 miles per hour at about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit while entering the Earth’s atmosphere. 

The Artemis 1 mission will finally come to a close when the Orion will attempt to make a precision landing off the coast of Baja, California, and be picked up by a recovery ship. Divers from this ship will inspect the spacecraft and the recovery ship will bring the Orion home after its almost 39 day long exploration. 

The initial launch of the Artemis 1 mission had been set for Monday, Aug. 29, yet not everything went to plan. The engines had not reached the proper temperature range required for liftoff. While the launch controllers worked to get the engines up and running, they were also contending with storms in the area, a core stage liquid hydrogen line leak, as well as a hydrogen leak, all delaying the launch. Eventually, the two hour launch window was over and time had run out for the Artemis 1. 

Though many were hopeful for the second Artemis 1 launch on Saturday, Sept. 3 at 2:17 p.m., that launch had to be scrubbed as well due to a leak in the line that fills and drains liquid hydrogen from the Space Launch System rocket. There were three attempts at patching it, but to no avail. The Artemis 1 would have had to launch by Tuesday, Sept. 6 in order to make that launch period, so unfortunately NASA had to reassess their options. The current launch period spanning from Sept. 19 until Oct. 4, includes 14 possible launch opportunities. The most recent launch attempt was planned for Sept. 27, however due to Hurricane Ian the launch was delayed once again. Fingers crossed that the Artemis 1 gets to fly soon. 

If all goes well with Artemis 1, the goal is to have many more Artemis missions to come. In the future, with the Artemis 2, NASA will be sending a manned mission to test and confirm that all of Orion’s spacecraft systems function properly with humans aboard. Following that, Artemis 3 will land the first astronauts on the moon in 50 years. From then on the objective will be to launch crewed missions once a year and focus on building a station orbiting the moon called Gateway, which will allow more surface access than what has ever been possible.

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