“If you’re afraid of heights, don’t look down.”
That’s the cheery advice offered in a recent YouTube video NASA created to showcase the massive launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida where it plans to launch the Space Launch System rocket for moon missions.
The view is indeed dizzying, and the video allows you to pan around to get a good look at your surroundings from hundreds of feet in the air. I’d always wondered how the Apollo astronauts felt in the 1960s and 1970s during their final hours on the launch pad before lifting off, and now I can see the view for myself. Lots of ocean, lots of greenery and of course, massive infrastructure supporting the massive rocket that was about to send them off Earth.
The 2024 deadline to land on the moon is not a clincher yet. NASA is in the middle of completing a tricky series of “green run” certifications on the massive rocket and has worked through several delays in getting this far. A hot fire on the core stage is planned in Mississippi by mid-January, at the earliest. Only if that goes as planned can contractor Boeing and NASA send the rocket down country to Florida, where it will be assembled for an uncrewed test moon mission called Artemis I to launch no earlier than November.
So why not reuse the Saturn V rocket to send astronauts to the moon? Well, we’re 50 years more advanced in computing technology and rocket technology. Back in 1969, we had no self-landing rockets. We had no 3D printing and less powerful composite technology. We had no pocket phones or computerized watches.
SLS is not self-landing, but it does have improvements over its worthy predecessor. Contractor Boeing has advanced avionics software precisely controlling the vehicle during flight. It reuses technology from the space shuttle program, such as the RS-25 engines the shuttle used, to make the manufacturing process as efficient as possible. It also has a more flexible set of destinations, such as (perhaps) sending an uncrewed spacecraft to Jupiter faster and more directly than how we currently do it (which requires, usually, weaving around a few planets first to pick up speed.)
NASA will require a sustained budgetary commitment to make the 2024 deadline, and observers are still waiting to see if the Biden administration is on board to send astronauts to the moon by then. In the meantime, though, NASA does have active memoranda of agreement with Europe and Canada in relation to the Artemis program.
Also remember that just because NASA is talking moon missions, it hasn’t given up on the International Space Station yet. The orbiting complex is slated to fly until at least 2024, with a 2028 extension favored by many of the international partners. In 2020, NASA and SpaceX sent the first two commercial missions to the space station, and more commercial activity is expected in the coming years. The ISS will also be needed to test moon spacesuits and some of the Artemis hardware in space, before the big landing.