Crewed Moon mission: 28 million miles to go until every inch of lunar surface is occupied and the first planetary landing since 1972
NASA has launched into space a crewed rocket designed to carry astronauts on a moon landing mission to mark the United States’ return to lunar orbit in February.
The space agency’s engineers on Monday successfully tested a key component of its first mission to the moon since 1972’s Apollo 11, the programme to send Americans to the moon which lasted until 1971.
NASA is aiming to be the first agency to land humans on the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972, the last spacecraft to touch down on the lunar surface before the US space shuttles were retired from service in 2011.
“Our return to the moon is an incredible achievement,” said William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
“With this flight, we’re turning the page and looking ahead to future exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond.”
Gerstenmaier said the two-stage rocket, named Orion, had made “fantastic progress” since it first arrived at Kennedy Space Center on 13 July.
Orion made its debut flight on Monday as the trio of spacemen, and their rocket builder, Boeing, were taken on a virtual tour of the launch pad and the spacecraft during an unmanned test in June.
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The Kennedy crew including mission commander Peggy Whitson gave the Columbia, a Boeing-built US-made mockup of the moon lander, a fly-around of the launch pad, where on 5 August the two-man crew of Nasa’s historic mission will take to the skies.
On 14 August, they will receive an official certification from Nasa and the US Missile Defense Agency for the successful flight.
The successful test came after a five-year journey for NASA.
The space agency, along with its partners, has been exploring whether human space exploration should include further trips to the moon as part of a broader manned lunar exploration programme.
The group, known as the Lunar Exploration Planning Group, aims to develop a pair of spacecraft, a heavy-lift rocket known as the heavy lunar orbital transport, or LHOT, and a smaller but “swiftly emerging” but-far smaller spacecraft known as the Lunar Landing Payload System, or LLCPS.
At a cost of about $17.5bn, the LHOT is a multi-mission system designed to deliver astronauts to the moon.
The LLCPS is a suite of small rockets that will enable human-rated spacecraft to gain access to lunar orbit.
The flight is scheduled to begin on 2 February and will include spacewalks, fuel consumption tests and rendezvous and docking tests.
“We have everyone kind of focused. We’re planning for that 2 February departure and on that day, if everything’s on target, we’ll be off to the moon,” Whitson said after Monday’s test.
There is plenty of work to be done before the astronauts can explore the moon.
Orion, NASA’s first lander designed for deep space travel, has yet to travel outside Earth’s protective atmosphere.
The crew must ultimately test the craft’s docking and flight system and assess the life-support system.
The lunar lander, which must pass a series of flight tests before allowing humans to roam the moon, is roughly two years from flight readiness.
“This spacecraft has the capability to do the polar darkness of the night, to land on the moon, to stay there and to do some critical scientific studies,” Gerstenmaier said.
So far, Nasa’s manned moon missions have involved only US crews.
Nasa only has seven astronauts ready to fly in space at any given time, and the group will have to lay off these crew members until next month for training and development of missions.
The flight to the moon is now targeted for February 2019.