NASA announced Monday that a test readiness review for its Artemis I mission is complete, preparing the way for the roll out of its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for initial tests before it begins its journey to the Moon as part of the upcoming Artemis mission.
On Thursday, the super heavy-lift launch vehicle will make its way onto Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida ahead of a wet dress rehearsal scheduled for April.
“Every generation has its moments, and this is going to be an incredible moment for this generation,” Tom Whitmeyer, associate administrator for exploration systems development, NASA Headquarters in Washington, said during a press conference on Monday.
The rocket rollout is a critical part of getting the vehicle ready for liftoff.
For more than a year, the Orion spacecraft has been stacked on top of the SLS rocket inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). On Thursday, a 6.6-million-pound crawler will go inside the VAB and slide under the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft placed on the Mobile Launcher.
The crawler will travel at a careful speed of 1 mile per hour to Launch Complex 39B. Once it rolls out on the pad, NASA engineers will run integrated testing, as well as test out the rollout ground gear and other pad activities.
If all goes well, NASA has already scheduled a wet dress rehearsal for April 1.
What is Artemis’ wet dress rehearsal?
Following the SLS rocket rollout, NASA engineers will have two weeks to prepare for a wet dress rehearsal. The wet dress rehearsal is a test of the integrated stack, control teams, ML-1, and the associated Ground Support Equipment (GSE) at 39B.
The 322-foot rocket will be filled up with fuel at pad 39B, and run through a mock countdown to prepare for the day of the launch. It will then spend about a month on the pad for further testing, then roll back to the VAB for final work.
“Of course, we'll wait and see what comes out of the wet dress — we could learn something new,” Mike Sarafin, Artemis mission manager, NASA Headquarters, said during the press conference. “And then we’ll be in a good position as an agency to set a launch date.”
Following the wet dress rehearsal, NASA will announce the exact dates for the launch of Artemis I. Artemis I is the first step in getting humans back on the Moon, although it is an uncrewed mission to the Moon and back.
Artemis mission goals
It’s been more than 50 years since humans landed on the Moon, and NASA is preparing a grand return to Earth’s natural satellite. The wheels are already in motion for the upcoming Artemis mission, with the first launch scheduled for sometime this summer.
But this time, when humans return to the Moon, the plan is to build a permanent base on the lunar surface that can take astronauts to Mars and beyond.
Ultimately the Artemis program wants to set up a sustainable presence of astronauts on the Moon, sending a crew up to the lunar surface once every year.
In order to do so, NASA plans on building a lunar base on the Moon where astronauts can stay for longer periods of time. From there, astronauts’ presence on the Moon will not only allow them to conduct long-term scientific research, but it may also allow humans to travel to further destinations like Mars.
Unlike Apollo, the Artemis mission is shooting for the Moon’s south pole.
The south pole is an unexplored region of the Moon. Due to its remote nature, some parts of it experience near-total darkness. NASA’s LCROSS mission crashed into this region intentionally in 2009, confirming the presence of water ice there. The India Space Research Organisation announced similar results that year, after analyzing data from its 2008 Moon Impact Probe crash into the moon, part of the Chandrayaan-1 mission. This could provide an important resource for astronauts, both for drinking water and for creating rocket fuel from the surface of the Moon.
Artemis I is the first phase for humanity’s return to the lunar surface, setting off a series of increasingly complex trips to the Moon. The first flight will take place on the SLS vehicle, which will place the Orion spacecraft on a lunar transfer trajectory.
Instead of landing on the Moon, Artemis I will overshoot it by thousands of miles. During its trip, Orion will travel 280,000 miles from Earth and spend about three weeks in space. After it travels beyond the Moon, Artemis I will make its way back to Earth.
If Artemis I succeeds, the initial phase will make way for humans to get on board in the year 2024. Artemis II is designed to carry humans onboard the Orion spacecraft, although they will not land on the Moon, either. Instead, the spacecraft is designed to orbit the Moon and return back to Earth.
The spacecraft will circle the Earth twice and periodically fire its engine in order to build up enough speed to propel it towards the Moon. After it orbits the Moon, the spacecraft will use the Moon’s gravitational pull to slingshot itself back to Earth.
If these two lunar trips go smoothly, then it’s time for the final act.
Artemis III will be the second crewed Artemis flight aboard the Orion spacecraft. But this time, the mission will land on the Moon. Once it reaches the Moon, the spacecraft will connect with the lunar gateway, a small space station that will be orbiting the Moon.
Artemis III is scheduled for sometime in the year 2026.
What’s next for Artemis?
The wet dress rehearsal will be the final major test for the Artemis I mission, ensuring that the rocket, spacecraft, and ground equipment are all set for launch. By then, NASA will be ready to announce the launch date for Artemis I.
Meanwhile, the agency is still working on Artemis II and III, selecting two or more astronauts to make the journey. However, the timeline for those subsequent missions will become more clear as NASA moves forward with Artemis I.