All set for the first step of humanity’s return to the Moon. The Artemis I mission will take off this Monday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida (USA), starting at 8:33 a.m. (2:33 p.m., Spanish peninsular time), according to NASA forecasts. The countdown is being lived dramatically, after detecting a hydrogen leak, considered “acceptable”, and a crack between the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks. For 42 days, the Orion spacecraft will make a round trip to the Moon with three mannequins on board, as a dress rehearsal for the future missions Artemis II, which will repeat a similar journey with four astronauts in 2024, and Artemis III, which it will land on the satellite in 2025 at the earliest. NASA’s stated goal is for “the first woman and the first non-white person” to walk on the Moon.
Artemis I will take off from the mythical launch pad 39B, launched on May 18, 1969 with the Apollo 10 mission, which orbited the Moon without landing. NASA is going to test this Monday the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket ever built, according to the Spanish aeronautical engineer Pedro José Herráiz, who is participating in the mission within the European Space Agency (ESA). The set formed by the launch vehicle and the Orion ship reaches 98 meters in height, five more than the Statue of Liberty. “To see a rocket of this size again, and with these intentions of returning to the Moon, on launch pad 39B is impressive. It is something that has not been seen for 50 years”, explains Herráiz with emotion.
NASA is in charge of the Artemis Program, named after the twin sister of the god Apollo in Greek mythology. The European agency has been in charge of the service module, an essential piece, since it will supply oxygen, water and electricity to the astronauts of future missions, as well as propel the manned capsule and control its temperature. It is the first time that NASA has entrusted the ESA with a “critical” part of a mission, according to Herráiz. “None of the first three missions is going to be the same. In Artemis I, as there is no crew and we are going to try things, the profile is going to be more risky than in the next one, which is manned”, details the Spanish engineer.
“Since there is no crew and we are going to try things, the profile is going to be more risky”
Pedro José Herráiz, ESA engineer
The last person to set foot on the Moon was astronaut Gene Cernan, on December 13, 1972. NASA’s Apollo Program recruited 770 men in a first call, who met the required requirements: be American, be under 34 years old, measure less than 1.83 meters, be a pilot with more than 1,500 flight hours and, in addition, be an engineer or physicist. One of them, Walter Cunningham, reflected on this team in his book The All-American Boys, published in 1977. “It was hard to ignore what we had so visibly in common: we were all white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, except for a handful of Americans. Catholics,” wrote Cunningham, who participated in the Apollo 7 mission.
Twelve white men walked on the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972. The day before the launch of the Apollo 11 mission, in which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon, hundreds of activists protested outside the Kennedy Space Center. At the head was the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, successor to the assassinated Martin Luther King at the head of the movement for the civil rights of black people. For Abernathy, it didn’t make sense to spend so much money going to the Moon when a fifth of the US population lived in poverty. The Apollo Program cost about 25,000 million dollars at the time, equivalent to about 150,000 million today.
With the Artemis Program, NASA wants to pay off that debt to the diversity of the United States and the rest of humanity. The first American astronaut was Sally Ride, who flew into space in 1983, the same year as NASA’s first black astronaut, Guion Bluford. Ride and Bluford did not go beyond Earth’s orbit. The US space agency repeats over and over again that the Artemis Program will allow “the first woman and the first non-white person” to walk on the Moon.
A Spanish aerospace engineer, Eduardo García Llama, directs the Orion spacecraft’s guidance and control system from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. On the chest of his uniform he has added, embroidered, the Latin words Non Sufficit Orbis, the motto of Felipe II, king of Spain in the second half of the 16th century. It means: “The world is not enough”.
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