NASA’s return to the moon begins Monday with a rocket launch

Humans haven’t walked on the moon in 50 years. But a NASA unmanned rocket launch scheduled for Monday will be the first step in bringing astronauts back to the lunar surface and eventually on to Mars.

NASA’s Space Launch System lunar rocket is scheduled to launch for the first time at 5:33 a.m. Pacific Time from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The towering rocket will propel the Orion crew capsule — with no crew aboard — 280,000 miles from Earth into a distant orbit around the moon. The capsule is scheduled to land off the coast of San Diego in October.

The launch is the first of NASA’s Artemis lunar program – named for the Greek moon goddess and twin sister of the sun god Apollo. The 42-day mission, which starts Monday, is designed to push the capsule to its limits to ensure it’s ready to carry a crew on future missions.

The next Artemis mission, scheduled for 2024 at the earliest, is expected to fly a crew around the moon. By 2025 or later, Artemis III is expected to land the first woman and first colored person on the moon.

“I’m a product of the Apollo generation and look what it’s done for us,” said Bob Cabana, NASA assistant administrator and former astronaut, who said he watched an Apollo launch as a young Navy midshipman. “I can’t wait to see what comes of the Artemis generation because I think they will inspire even more than Apollo.”

The debut of the Space Launch System rocket was years – and billions of dollars – in the making.

Built by Boeing Co., the SLS rocket was originally scheduled to launch in November 2018. But development delays and work delays related to COVID pushed the launch further and further.

According to a 2020 US Government Accountability Office report, it will now launch almost four years behind schedule and cost an additional $3 billion at a total development cost of $11.5 billion.

While SLS was being developed, the US commercial aerospace industry continued to expand. Companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s joint venture United Launch Alliance are working on building larger rockets that could play a role in future lunar missions.

For now, NASA has announced that it will rely on the SLS rocket to launch its Artemis missions. But if those other rockets prove successful and have a lower price tag, the space agency could make a choice, said Laura Forczyk, chief executive of space consulting firm Astralytical.

“It might be more viable and affordable if another launch vehicle complements or replaces it,” she said.

With the Artemis program, NASA’s ultimate goal is to establish a long-term presence on the moon, conduct more research, and prepare astronauts for living and working in space, skills that will be important for Mars missions.

Planetary scientists are particularly interested in the Artemis III lunar landing mission because it will take place at the moon’s south pole — a very different location from the lunar equator, where the Apollo missions focused.

Samples of lunar rock from the South Pole will help scientists better understand the moon’s history and its role in Earth’s formation, said Miki Nakajima, an assistant professor at the University of Rochester who studies planetary objects, including the moon.

“The Apollo mission was really amazing, and we’re still benefiting from it,” she said. “But it wasn’t perfect. By understanding the moon much better, we can understand the earth.” NASA’s return to the moon begins Monday with a rocket launch

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