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American moon dreams are on hold

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By now the spacecraft should be on its way to the moon. To this day, NASA hoped the gumball-shaped capsule, designed to one day carry astronauts, would send all sorts of data home, showing engineers how its first trip to space was going.

But the capsule is still there, sitting atop a giant rocket that has so far refused to leave Earth. NASA has spent weeks promoting the maiden flight of the Space Launch System, the rocket at the center of the ambitious US effort to land astronauts on the moon again this decade. Celebrity appearances and musical performances were on the agenda. There were enough Krispy Kreme donuts at the Kennedy Space Center to feed the entire state of Florida. Even the vice president has arrived. And yet, the rocket remained in place.

Many natural factors can delay the launch: nearby lightning, hovering cumulus clouds, the rotation of the planet itself. But in the case of the space launch system, the problems were with the rocket. NASA postponed its first attempt in late August after a sensor reported a problem with one of the main engines. The agency called off its second attempt this weekend after the liquid hydrogen tank caused a leak too big for engineers to contain. NASA will have a chance to make a third attempt in late September or October, after engineers remove the rocket from the launch pad and bring it back inside to inspect the system and reset its batteries. “We’re not going to launch until it’s good,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson told reporters over the weekend. The moon will have to wait a little longer.

People in the rocket industry weren’t surprised that the space launch system didn’t lift off on its first, or even second, attempt. Delays happen, as do leaks; The Space Launch System is a new vehicle made in part from familiar old parts from NASA’s now-retired space shuttle fleet, which have experienced their own frustrating share of hydrogen exhaust. But two abandoned attempts in a week are a disappointing setback for the country’s new moon program, named Artemis (for Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology).

The rocket program is already years behind schedule and many taxpayer dollars are over budget. NASA no longer faces a geopolitical space race, but faces domestic competition from private rocket makers who have pledged to fly more often and more cheaply than the government. A series of delays could bolster the argument that perhaps NASA, the only organization to ever put humans on the lunar surface, shouldn’t launch lunar rockets at all. Proper operation of the Space Launch System is as much about getting back to the moon as it is about demonstrating that NASA’s approach is worth it.

The first Artemis mission involves the Space Launch System lifting the astronaut’s capsule, called Orion, on a week-long trek around the moon and back. It is a technical demonstration, a test of countless parts and components to ensure that the vehicle is safe for people. If Orion performs as planned, survives the meteoric reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, and ends up in the hands of engineers, NASA will move on to the next stage of the program: another test drive around the moon, this time with a crew of four astronauts. If all goes well, the next mission will end with a surface landing.

Humanity has done this stuff before. From 1969 to 1972, NASA sent men to the moon six times, using technology less powerful than the small devices that run our lives in the 21st century. Astronauts descended to the surface and explored, ate and slept while the rest of humanity advanced nearly 240,000 miles. This time, NASA wants to do things a little differently. The next crew to set foot on the dusty regolith, for example, won’t be all white men; NASA promised the group would include the first woman and the first person of color on the moon. And the landings are meant to bring a sustained presence on the moon, a future with habitats and rovers on the surface and a small space station spinning above.

At Kennedy Space Center, along the country’s ‘Space Coast’, people were buzzing with anticipation in the days leading up to the two Artemis 1 attempts. Astronauts dressed in blue suits moved by, glancing furtively to the rocket that could one day be their turn. When I asked Victor Glover, a NASA astronaut who could very well be part of the first crew to land, what Artemis trip he would like to take, he said, “I don’t know, but if they want me mission, I will be ready when my time comes.

A rocket built for the moon hasn’t flown since 1972. After the Apollo 17 crew returned, America’s space program, subject to political whims and budget fluctuations, moved closer to home. NASA built space shuttles, and astronauts put them into orbit and helped assemble the International Space Station. Development of the Space Launch System began in 2010 and, fueled by bipartisan support and liquid hydrogen, the effort has managed to survive several presidential administrations and reach the launch pad this year, bringing the country one step closer to a return to the moon than he was. in recent memory.

This whole story, however, could slow NASA down. The Space Launch System design is based on hardware used in NASA shuttles, which were retired in 2011 after 30 years of operation. The rocket fuel includes liquid hydrogen, which, while more efficient, is also more prone to leaks than the methane that other rocket makers have started using. And after each launch, NASA’s rocket must abandon very expensive hardware in the ocean with no hope of reusing anything, which commercial companies have shown they can do.

One such commercial company, SpaceX, is developing its own lunar rocket, known as Starship. Ten years ago, the public might have scoffed at the idea of ​​Elon Musk’s rowdy start-up doing something very historic. But today, SpaceX is NASA’s only route to the International Space Station, and the agency has signed on with the company to launch several of its upcoming missions, including a new space telescope and a probe to study one. icy moons of Jupiter. Not only that, NASA has also contracted SpaceX to produce the lander that future Artemis astronauts will use to descend to the surface of the moon, as well as the spacecraft that will help it to lunar orbit. In a future where SpaceX technology could do all of this, the government rocket might seem almost superfluous. Of course, like NASA’s rocket, Starship will likely face its own set of problems. But if a ship explodes, Congress isn’t going to appeal to SpaceX officials and demand a formal explanation. Private enterprise can continue in a way that a federal space agency cannot.

NASA has set very ambitious deadlines for the Artemis program, and each should be taken with a speck of moon dust, especially the work goal for the first landing, in 2025. SpaceX’s landing technology is still In progress. The spacesuits aren’t finished yet. Even the toilets that will eventually be installed in the Orion capsule, don’t laugh; it is crucial technology! – is still being tested on the International Space Station and, according to a NASA engineering official, it is having problems. NASA budgets didn’t begin to factor in the habitats and rovers astronauts would use after they perfected surface landing. America could certainly send astronauts to the moon before the end of this decade, but we are a long way from lunar glamping.

Early in the Artemis story, high-profile delays raise all sorts of questions that NASA would rather not answer, ranging from What’s taking so long to get back there? at Why are we even going at all? The US space program has always received mixed reviews. NASA doesn’t talk about it now, but many Americans didn’t support the Apollo program, which took place in the late 1960s, a chaotic and painful time in the country’s history. The United States had enough work to do here on this planet without paying money to leave it, people said. Mark Kirasich, NASA’s deputy associate administrator responsible for defining the Artemis program, was 9 years old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, and he remembers thinking that after a feat like that, the people would soon be traveling even deeper into space. In fact, NASA officials predicted that after the lunar feat, astronauts would be able to reach Mars in the early 1980s. “When you looked at my coloring book, there were all kinds of space vehicles flying around the universe,” Kirasich told me.

This time around, NASA’s budget is much smaller and the agency is selling the public several reasons to return to the Moon: scientific exploration, economic opportunities, inspiring a new generation. At the Kennedy Space Center, the wrapper for a special launch treat – an Artemis-brand chocolate-and-marshmallow-covered cookie – said the launch was “for the benefit of all mankind.” Artemis 1’s unofficial tagline – “We’re going” – is, in a way, perfect. It offers no immediate explanation; it is exempt from justification.

Whatever the reason, a triumphant return to the Moon can only begin in one place: on the launch pad, with the successful liftoff of a rocket. NASA must now wait for technicians to carry out various repairs, including replacing a seal that would prevent liquid hydrogen from escaping. Hydrogen is the smallest molecule in the universe, making it difficult to contain even with the best materials on the market, Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for systems development, told me this weekend. of exploration. Free joined NASA in 1990, when the agency spent months trying to find the source of a hydrogen leak in one of the space shuttles. They couldn’t take off without solving it. When I asked Free if he thought the Space Launch System could face its own frustrating season – that a tiny molecule could block the nation’s attempt to reach the moon this year – he had a nervous laughter. “I hope not,” he said.