After enduring months of delays due to malfunctions and hurricanes, NASA hopes to finally launch its first Artemis mission to the Moon on the most powerful rocket ever built, known as the Space Launch System (SLS), in the wee hours of Wednesday.
The mission, called Artemis I, is a test drive that will not carry any astronauts on its trip to lunar orbit, though NASA plans to send a crew on the next swing around the Moon in a few years.
If all goes to plan, the SLS will blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, sometime between 1:04 and 3:04 am Eastern Time on November 16, marking the maiden voyage of this enormous and beleaguered rocket, as well as the much-anticipated start to the Artemis Program that aims to land the first woman and person of color on the Moon this decade. You can watch the launch unfold at the below livestream.
The “countdown so far is proceeding very well and we are on schedule,” said Jeremy Parsons, deputy program manager for Exploration Ground Systems at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center during a media briefing held on Monday. “Everything’s looking really good.”
Artemis I was originally scheduled to launch in August, but that high-profile event was delayed due to a faulty engine sensor. Another launch attempt days later was scuttled by a liquid hydrogen leak that sprang up as the SLS was being fueled. Mission leads took a few weeks to troubleshoot the issues, but were thwarted from launching again by Hurricane Ian in September and Hurricane Nicole last week. The latter storm inflicted some damage on the Orion spacecraft that required several days to assess.
This recent run of bad luck follows years of delays for the Artemis Program, and its flagship SLS rocket, which originated in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. The program has also attracted criticism for its high cost, especially compared to commercial space alternatives, and for its potential to raise thorny legal questions about resource extraction on the Moon and other bodies.
Even so, a successful launch on Wednesday would mark a major milestone for NASA as the operator of the world’s most powerful rocket and a leader of a new era in human space exploration. In addition to returning humans to the Moon after more than 50 years, the Artemis Program aims to support astronauts on the lunar surface for several weeks, compared to the days-long trips to the Moon made by the Apollo crews.
In this way, NASA envisions establishing a more stable base on the surface of the Moon that would be supported in part by an orbiting laboratory called the Lunar Gateway. It’s a futuristic dream that once again is facing a fundamental test as mission leads brace themselves for the yet another tense countdown.
“Our time is coming and we hope that that is on Wednesday,” said Mike Sarafin, the Artemis mission manager at NASA, during the Monday briefing. “But if Wednesday is not the right day, we will take that next hurdle, that next trial, and persevere through that.”
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