NASA’s Artemis I mission is about to blow up the SLS mega-rocket to the Moon

OK, space fans. The time is almost here. NASA is about to launch its next-generation rocket for the first time and send it beyond the Moon. It’s going to be a crazy time, but honestly, there’s a lot going on here on Earth too – and if you’re anything like me, you might be in the market for a quick refresher on exactly what happens when NASA’s next big thing takes off.

Consider this your SLS cheat sheet as NASA prepares for its big launch on August 29.

What is SLS?

It stands for Space Launch System.

It seems like a very boring name.

He is. But it is also extremely functional, since it refers to a system for launching objects into space.

What kinds of things can SLS throw?

So many things! This version of SLS has four large rocket motors and two solid-state boosters and can carry approximately 27 metric tons to the general vicinity of the Moon. This is more than the space shuttle could carry to low Earth orbit but less than the The Apollo-era Saturn V rocket could carry towards the Moon. Future versions of SLS will be able to carry even more.

The SLS rocket on a large platform with a rocky road in the foreground.

The SLS and Orion rolling towards the launch pad
Image: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Wow, how is he going to do that?

It will ignite like a 5.75 million pound firework. These boosters – the two white cylinders on either side of the rocket – are 17 stories tall and filled with a solid rocket fuel called polybutadiene acrylonitrile. They burn through six tons of this fuel every second, according to NASA. In case you’re wondering what it’s all about compared to jumbo jets, NASA has you covered. Each “generates more thrust than 14 four-engined commercial jumbo jets.” The two thrusters will generate 75% of the boom that will launch the rocket and its cargo.

But that’s only part of the rocket power. There is also the 212 feet high base stage — the large orange part of the rocket. On launch day, it will hold 537,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and 196,000 of liquid oxygen, which will power the bottom four engines.

All that fuel and engineering translates into a boatload of power. Within 8.5 minutes of launch, SLS and the Orion capsule it carries will be moving at speeds of approximately 17,000 miles per hour.

What is the Orion capsule?

I say, another one Last name. Thus, SLS will carry a spacecraft called Orion. (In pictures, it is the white part at the top of the rocket.) It is in no way related to the Orion Gaming Gadget.

Photo by Loren Grush/The Verge

Orion is designed for missions beyond Earth orbit, with potential destinations of the Moon or Mars. He has a extremely shiny appearance that will help it cope with extreme temperatures in space, a next-generation heat shield to deal with atmospheric re-entry, and a start the abandon system this could put the astronauts to safety if something went wrong during the launch. In space, it can withstand four people on assignment for 21 days.

Orion flew into space before in a test flight in 2014. It has undergone numerous tests since then in preparation for this next flight, which has been delayed by several, many time. (More on those delays later.) In 2020, it looked like there might be a chance it could be delayed further when some engineers discovered a problem with a power component for the spacecraft. Trying to fix it would have taken months, and they have backup systems available, so they will fly the spaceship as it is.

Will there be people inside Orion?

No. There will be three mannequins attached inside, which look more or less terrifying. One is named Commander Moonikin Campos, and he’ll be wearing one of the flight suits that astronauts will wear on future missions. He will be accompanied by the limbless Helga and Zohar, who will carry radiation detectors to determine how much radiation astronauts might be exposed to while traveling to the Moon. Zohar will be wearing a vest that can protect against radiation. Helga won’t. Good luck Helga.

two blue limbless mannequins strapped to seats inside the orion capsule

Helga and Zohar strapped themselves into their seats in Orion. The feet of Commander Moonikin Campos are visible in the upper left.
Image: NASA/Frank Michaux

One of the main reasons there won’t be any astronauts on board is that this whole launch is a giant test flight. This is the first time the SLS has made its big debut in space, and putting people on a rocket before seeing if it can actually work seems like a very bad choice. (NASA very briefly considered doing just thatthen decided not to.) Instead, Artemis I will focus on testing how Orion and SLS work and pushing them to their limits before people get on board.

What is Artemis I?

Oh boy, yet another name! Artemis I is the mission that SLS and Orion are pursuing. Its main purpose is to ensure that Orion can work in space and can return astronauts safely to Earth once the mission is complete. As a bonus, it will be fly further from Earth than any spacecraft designed for humans has never flown before, reaching a distance of 280,000 miles from Earth.

During its 42-day mission, it will travel a grand total of around 1.3 million miles, heading for the Moon, then entering orbit around the Moon for several days before returning to Earth. The cards in this mission look like an extremely large and very messy number 8. If the launch goes as planned on August 29, it should return to Earth on October 10.

A diagram showing the flight path of the Artemis I mission looping around the Earth and the Moon.

The route of Artemis I.
Image: Nasa

Are there other Artemis missions?

Yeah! If all goes well with Artemis I, NASA will move on to Artemis II, which will be the first crewed flight of the SLS/Orion combo. It’s also the first crewed mission to the Moon since the Apollo era, but the astronauts on board won’t land on the Moon — they’ll just orbit for a while and then return to Earth.

The ultimate goal is for NASA to land the first woman on the Moon during the Artemis III mission, which is still ongoing. In August, NASA announced several potential landing sites near the south pole of the Moon.

Yeah, that rings a bell. How long has this been in the works?

The Artemis program? Since 2019, when then-Vice President Mike Pence announced that NASA was returning to the Moon and arriving there by 2024.

Fun fact! It gets its name from the fact that in mythology Artemis is Apollo’s twin sister, and there’s just a ton of nostalgia for the Apollo missions, For the best or for the worst.

So will they return to the Moon by 2024?

Absolutely not. They are shooting for 2025 at this point, but it’s still quite ambitious.

What about the SLS project? I feel like I’ve heard about it for a long time.

You certainly have. Its origins date back to around 2010, when the United States was moving away from the space shuttle and towards other modes of space transportation. Some parts started as a project called Constellation which was canceled because it was way too expensive. Then it was relaunched as SLS in 2010, with the goal of launching in 2017. This slipped to 2018 and continued to slide, as the project became notoriously retarded and out of budget.

For a complete overview of the story, discover our story here.

But… are they ready to go now?

It looks like it! Even though their dress rehearsal was cut short in June due to a hydrogen leak, engineers believe they’ve ironed out all the last-minute tasks for the rocket, and NASA has decided it’s a go for launch.

What else will be on board?

In addition to Helga, Zohar, and Commander Moonikin Campos, there will be a few other science experiments aboard Artemis I. During the mission, the spacecraft will deploy 10 small satellites called CubeSats. Some will map the ice on the lunar surface, one will deploy a giant solar sail and head for an asteroid, and we’ll try to land on the moon. On board there will also be a science experiment that bring yeast where no yeast has gone before in an attempt to study radiation from deep space.

A stuffed cartoon sheep reaches for a small model of the Orion capsule.

Shaun the Sheep poses with a model of the Orion capsule
Image: ESA/Aardman

Also inside the capsule will be a plush sheep named Shaun. Also, Snoopy. Shaun and Snoopy will serve as weightlessness indicatorsfloating around Orion once it reaches microgravity.

When is SLS launching?

August 29 at 8:33 a.m. ET. We’ll see you there!

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