Moon landing return! NASA sets date for first lunar launch since Apollo missions

NASA share the preparation ahead of Artemis I's moon launch

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The uncrewed Artemis 1 launch next year will pave the way for the next man and first woman to walk on the Moon since the end of NASA’s Apollo era. The last man to set boots on the Moon was Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan who in 1972 bid farewell to the lunar surface with a touching tribute to humanity. He said: “And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

NASA is now determined to do good on that promise with Artemis, the mythical twin sister of the Greek god Apollo.

The programme’s first mission, Artemis 1, is pencilled in to launch in February 2022, after multiple delays.

Artemis 1 was originally scheduled to launch late this year, setting the stage for astronauts to walk on the Moon by 2024.

NASA has now taken a major step towards the mission with the assembly of its Orion capsule atop the powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

The capsule was affixed to the colossal rocket in the final stage of pre-launch preparations, before blasting off on an uncrewed flight around the lunar orb.

Artemis 1 will be the first in a series of uncrewed and robotic flights that will culminate in the first of many crewed launches.

Mike Bolger, Exploration Ground Systems programme manager, said: “It’s hard to put into words what this milestone means, not only us here at Exploration Ground Systems, but to all the incredibly talented people who have worked so hard to help us get to this point.

“Our team has demonstrated tremendous dedication preparing for the launch Artemis 1.

“While there is still work to be done to get to launch, with continues integrated tests and Wet Dress Rehearsal, seeing the fully stacked SLS is certainly a reward for all of us.”

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The 322-foot-tall (98 meters) rocket was assembled at the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s historic Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Once ready, the SLS will be rolled out four miles away to the launchpad for a “wet dress rehearsal” in January.

During the test, the rocket will be pumped full of super-chilled rocket fuel and undergo a number of launchpad checkouts.

According to NASA, Artemis 1 will be the first in a “series of increasingly complex missions” that will pave the way for human deep space exploration.

NASA’s first launch opportunity will open in mid-February next year.

Mike Sarafin, Artemis 1 mission manager, told reporters on Friday: “The February launch period opens on the 12th and our last opportunity is February on the 27th.”

After that, NASA’s next launch window will open in March and in April.

The first crewed flight will launch on Artemis 2 at a future date.

Under NASA’s original timeline, the space agency envisioned establishing a sustained human presence on the Moon by 2028.

Setting up camp on the Moon and in lunar orbit via the Lunar Gateway station, was to act as a stepping stone to Mars.

However, a mix of bureaucracy, inadequate funding shifting goalposts have cast doubt on NASA’s timeline.

In September last year, former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “Under the Artemis program, humanity will explore regions of the Moon never visited before, uniting people around the unknown, the never seen, and the once impossible.

“We will return to the Moon robotically beginning next year, send astronauts to the surface within four years, and build a long-term presence on the Moon by the end of the decade.”

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