NASA's solid rocket boosters, which burn 12 tons of propellant per second. NASA/MSFC / Wikimedia
NASA has moved forward on two key elements of its ambitious Artemis mission, which aims to land humans on the Moon and establish the capacity for “sustainable lunar exploration” later in the decade, according to the official mission plan. Incredibly, the agency announced the 10 newest “Artemis Generation” of astronauts on Monday.
This comes on the heels of the agency awarding Northrop Grumman a $3.19-billion contract for several of “the most powerful solid rocket boosters ever built,” according to a recent press release from the agency. The 5-stage boosters will provide most of the thrust needed to launch the agency’s first crewed mission into deep space since the Apollo program, and its Saturn-V rocket.
And the system’s first big test is just months away.
NASA is returning to the Moon
The new class of astronauts — most of them veterans of the U.S. military — includes six men and four women. “These NASA astronauts will plan, train, and fly missions to the International Space Station and to the moon under Artemis, and eventually onto Mars,” said Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center during a presentation reported in The Verge. The success of those ambitious plans depends on the Space Launch System (SLS), the rocket NASA is building to deliver the new Orion spacecraft — filled with supplies and, eventually, astronauts — beyond Earth’s gravity.
The solid rocket boosters from Northrop Grumman will provide more than 75% of the total thrust at launch. The 177-foot-tall boosters will be fabricated in Promontory, Utah, and shipped by rail to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to be assembled with the other components. Each one will weigh 1.6 million pounds and burn enough polybutadiene acrylonitrile fuel to generate 3.6 million pounds of thrust for slightly more than 2 minutes. That’s more thrust than 14 four-engine jumbo commercial airliners can generate, according to a NASA fact sheet. As of writing, Northrop Grumman is delivering the boosters for Artemis II, III, and IV. The boosters provisioned in the new contract will carry Artemis IV through VIII into space.The 10 new astronauts NASA selected for the 'Artemis generation'. Source: NASA
NASA's Artemis I is launching early 2022
The first full-scale test of this new system could happen as early as February 12, 2022, with the launch of the uncrewed Artemis I. This launch will give the agency an opportunity to test several interconnected systems. One component will be the new solid rocket boosters, from a batch Northrop Grummon has already delivered. Most of the other components of the SLS are also new. Assuming the launch is successful, engineers will spend most of the mission closely monitoring the Orion spacecraft while it travels past the Moon and back. The plan is for the vehicle to splash down within sight of U.S. Navy ships stationed in the Pacific about 3 weeks after blastoff.
This test marks a major milestone in NASA's stated goal of returning to the Moon. The agency said until recently that it would do so by 2024, but NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said last month that "the first human landing under Artemis is likely no earlier than 2025." But with a new fresh batch of Artemis superrockets on the way, and 10 new "Artemis generation" astronauts preparing for deep space missions, the agency's return to the moon is still on.