CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — The first mission in NASA's Artemis moon program is set to roll out to the launch pad today (March 17).
More than 50 years after NASA landed the first humans on the moon with Apollo 11, the agency is gearing up to launch its next human lunar missions as part of the Artemis program. And the program's first mission, Artemis 1, will take a big step toward launch today, when the mission's rocket and spacecraft will roll out to the launch pad.
Ahead of the Artemis 1 launch, which is expected no sooner than May, NASA is rolling its Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and Orion spacecraft on the giant crawler-transporter 2 (CT-2) to Pad 39B at the agency's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) here on Florida's Space Coast.
To watch the rollout, you can tune in live right here at Space.com at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) when the crawler makes its first move. You can also tune in directly at NASA TV. The live coverage will include live commentary from guests, including NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
With the rollout, the crawler will start its journey at NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at KSC. The vehicle, which weighs 6.6 million lbs. (2.9 million kilograms), will carry SLS and Orion, going about 0.8 mph (1.3 kph). The 4-mile (6.4 kilometers) journey from the VAB to the launch pad with the rocket and spacecraft on board will take the vehicle approximately 11 hours (with a couple of pre-planned stops along the way).
The crawler has been in action for over 50 years; it was frst designed to carry NASA's Saturn V rocket, which lofted the Apollo missions to the moon all those decades ago. Thanks to some relatively recent upgrades, the crawler is still in great shape, and seeing it in action is still as exciting as ever.
"If you ever see it up close, it's the most phenomenal thing I've ever seen," Tom Whitmeyer, the associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA headquarters in Washington D.C., told Space.com during a news conference Monday (March 14). "It is quite an incredible feat."
After today's rollout, Artemis 1 team members will work toward the mission's "wet dress rehearsal." This is a test that is performed after a vehicle is at the launch pad. During the event, team members will load up the SLS with fuel and conduct a practice launch countdown. Essentially, the team will rehearse what will happen in the time immediately leading up to launch.
Currently, the wet dress rehearsal is expected to take place on April 3. Following this test, the mission team will spend eight to nine days conducting more tests with SLS and Orion on the pad before rolling them back to the VAB to prepare for the official launch.
Artemis 1 is an uncrewed mission. But it is an important step toward not just a crewed launch but a future lunar landing. This mission will test how well SLS and Orion can complete a mission to the moon and back, as Artemis 1 will see Orion launched on a journey lasting about 26 days that will take it 280,000 miles (450,000 km) from Earth, way out past the moon and then back to its home planet.
This mission will ensure that SLS and Orion can safely ferry astronauts that far into space and back. Artemis 1 will be followed by Artemis 2, expected to launch in 2024, which will be a crewed mission that aims to send a team of astronauts around the moon and back to Earth.
These missions all lead up to Artemis 3, expected for no earlier than 2025, which will land humans on the moon. This will be the first human lunar landing since NASA's final Apollo moon landing in December of 1972, almost 50 years ago today.