Cloud formations are reflected at sunrise near the Artemis 1 moon rocket on Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on August 27. This image shows the formation between Launch pad 39A and 41 in the direction of the Atlantic Ocean. NASA’s SLS rocket with the Orion capsule atop is scheduled to lift off on August 29. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 29 (UPI) — After years of conceptualizing, planning and testing, NASA on Monday will take the initial operational step toward returning human astronauts to the moon for the first time in a half-century.

Artemis I, the long-awaited first mission that will pave the way for humans to return to the lunar surface, is scheduled to lift off from the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center on Monday aboard the massive new Space Launch System.

A two-hour launch window is scheduled to begin at 8:33 a.m. EDT from Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in central Florida.

It’s possible, however, that there might be a delay. NASA said early Monday that it’s been dealing with a small fuel leak — but didn’t give any indication that it’s expected to cause trouble with the launch.

The fueling process of the SLS, which involves super-cold hydrogen and oxygen, was halted a few times due to the leak. Stormy weather had already delayed the fueling for a short time.

Engineers are also looking at what appeared to be a crack on the core stage, which is the SLS’ large orange fuel tank. Some frost around the crack drew engineers’ attention.

NASA will stream the launch live and the broadcast is set to feature appearances by a handful of celebrities that include Jack Black, Chris Evans and Keke Palmer, as well as a performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Josh Groban and Herbie Hancock and “America the Beautiful” featuring The Philadelphia Orchestra and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin.

The uncrewed Artemis I mission is the first for the Space Launch System, which is paired with the Orion capsule. The primary goal of the mission is to ensure the SLS can do its job and the Orion spacecraft can safely deliver astronauts back to Earth.

“Artemis I is that first step down this path when we talk about sustained exploration on the lunar surface. This is our exploration system. I hope that everyone takes some pride nationally for what we’ve been able to do and where we are today,” NASA Associate Administrator, Exploration Systems Jim Free said during a press briefing on Friday.

It’s been a very long road for NASA, scientists and the space-loving public to get back to this point since the last human mission to the moon 50 years ago.

When Apollo 17 landed on the moon in 1972, everyone already knew that it would be the last human flight to the lunar surface for a long time. For they knew that it had already been a very expensive endeavor and NASA had other plans for the future that did not involve a return to the moon.

As Neil Armstrong was famously the first human to walk on the lunar surface, astronaut Gene Cernan was the last on Dec. 14, 1972.

“As I take man’s last step from the surface … for some time to come, but we believe not too long into the future, I’d like to just say what I believe history will record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow,” Cernan said before he climbed back into the lunar module for the return to Earth.

“And as we leave the moon … we leave as we came, and God willing as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

The space shuttle became NASA’s top priority from its development in the mid-1970s until it was retired in 2011. Two disasters and the loss of 14 astronauts hastened the end to the space shuttle, which never fulfilled its goal of becoming an inexpensive reusable space vehicle.

A return to the moon wouldn’t become a goal again at NASA until 2005 when the Constellation program was announced. Its main goals were finishing the International Space Station, returning to the moon no later than 2020 and sending a human mission to Mars. President Barack Obama canceled Constellation in 2010 when it was learned that the program would be too costly.

The formal law that canceled Constellation, however, directly led to the Space Launch System and ultimately the Artemis program.

NASA’s Lunar Gateway Program aims to establish a space station orbiting the moon that will serve future lunar missions and is on schedule for launch by SpaceX in 2024. Artemis II, a crewed mission that will orbit the moon, is scheduled for sometime in 2024 and Artemis III, which will return humans to the lunar surface, sometime in 2025.

Holly Ridings, deputy director of the Gateway Program, said that the 12 years leading up to the launch have all been “positive trajectory.”

“We created what we have today, Artemis I, SLS and Orion, out on the launchpad ready to go, and even beyond that, the entire Artemis enterprise. The process to me was one of resilience in a way that we always use,” she told UPI.

On Sunday, NASA said Artemis I was in good position to take off Monday despite recording five “events” from at least one lightning strike at the launch site as weather forced work planned into Sunday night to be “pulled in.” Final checks will be done about two hours prior to launch on Monday.

If Artemis I does not launch on Monday, NASA will try again during the next window early Friday afternoon. After that, the next window would be on Sept. 5.

Moghbeli poses for a portrait in the Systems Engineering Simulator for the International Space Station and advanced spaceflight programs at the Johnson Space Center on July 9, 2019. She will train for the moon mission. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA

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