Rehearsal: The last test of NASA’s moon rocket before launch

A NASA Artemis rocket stands with the Orion spacecraft on Platform 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, March 18. NASA begins a crucial countdown test of its new lunar rocket. The two-day rehearsal began Friday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and will culminate on Sunday with the loading of the rocket’s fuel tanks. (John Rao, The Associated Press)

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — NASA began a critical countdown test Friday of its new lunar rocket, a 30-story behemoth that could make its first test flight on the moon by summer.

The two-day demonstration — the last major milestone before liftoff to the moon — will culminate on Sunday as teams load nearly one million gallons of ultra-cold fuel into the rocket onto the platform. The countdown will stop at the 9-second mark before the engines ignite.

NASA plans to schedule the launch after analyzing the rehearsal results for the SLS rocket for a short time.

Officials indicated that the rocket could explode as early as June, thrusting the attached Orion capsule toward the moon. The capsule will spend at least a month in space before returning to Earth.

No one will be on board for the first moon launch since NASA’s Apollo moon landing half a century ago. The astronauts will prepare for the second test flight scheduled for 2024, which will orbit the moon and back. That would pave the way for astronauts to land on the Moon around 2025, according to NASA.

However, the US Government Accountability Office recently warned that technical challenges remain – primarily with the lunar lander and space suits – that could further delay the lunar landing, which is already years behind schedule. The Government Accountability Office also cited the billions in escalating costs.

The rocket is 322 feet high and made its first appearance at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad 2 weeks ago. Since then, all of its systems have been up and running in preparation for testing this weekend. Officials stressed that the possibility of thunderstorms or technical problems could lead to a halt in training.

NASA promised to provide updates throughout the weekend, but the public won’t be able to listen in. The space agency cited security concerns.

“We’re being careful — a lot of caution — and that’s exactly in the environment we’re in these days,” said Tom Whitmaier, head of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development.

NASA expects to announce the crews for the initial lunar flights this summer. The pool of candidates includes nine men and nine women; Two are on the International Space Station and two are due to arrive there in a few weeks.

Twenty-four astronauts flew to the Moon during the Apollo flight from 1968 until 1972; 12 landed on the moon.

Unlike Apollo, NASA is partnering with a private company for its lunar program, named Artemis after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology. While NASA’s rocket and capsule will carry astronauts into lunar orbit, SpaceX’s still-development craft will bring them to the lunar surface, at least for the first mission. NASA is looking for additional companies to land at a later time.

The space agency’s goal is to develop a sustainable presence on the Moon, and then target Mars. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson recently cited 2040 as the goal of a Mars journey with astronauts.

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