Nasa’s long-awaited space station landing set for February 2021

Space agency wants to build on successes of the Apollo missions. This week will see crew trapped in the moon’s interior for six months until new rocket can be built

Thousands of kilometers away from Earth in a US factory, engineers are putting the final touches on a new rocket for human space travel. After 14 years of research and development, the first moon rocket built by the US has finally been designated, and the agency that developed it – NASA – aims to send humans back to the moon within two years.

Over the course of two weeks, mission control in Houston will receive news – one of them about the end of the lives of three of its crew members trapped inside the moon’s interior for six months.

Millions of miles away, Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is busy finalizing design plans and testing parts for the first Space Launch System, or SLS, by the end of January. A multi-stage booster based on the Saturn V rockets that took the US to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s, it is the next generation of rocket currently under development by NASA, and after three years in development that the program is now entering a new phase of testing.

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“In early February, our team will complete hardware systems tests for the rocket’s advanced engines and polar solar arrays,” said mission manager Gary Horlacher in an email. (E.O.) first reported the plan to launch in February.

Construction of the SLS began in 2009, when it was announced that both Florida and California were in line to host its liftoffs. The moon rocket project faced a significant amount of controversy as NASA moved to build it in the face of dwindling budgets.

“President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget request to Congress, which went to the Hill in February of this year, would fund our first of 12 SLS flights to the moon,” NASA said in its budget proposal. “To support this goal, we also initiated our plans to develop the Space Launch System mega-rocket.”

NASA currently spends more than $4bn a year on its space exploration programs, less than one-third of which goes to human space exploration. But this year, the Congress approved the Trump administration’s budget request, which aims to spend at least $14bn by 2025.

And if all goes according to plan, in March 2021, the SLS will blast three spacecraft (and possibly three astronauts) towards the moon. For the first four launches, two spacecraft and two astronauts will travel to the lunar surface.

The second mission, in July 2021, will make the first attempt at a crew landing. The third flight will return to Earth with six crew and cargo, possibly carrying components of lunar samples to be returned by NASA after multiple missions in the late 2030s.

Ileana Arias, chief astronaut for Nasa and one of the moon launches’s co-principal investigator, will join crew of seven astronauts on their descent through the lunar gravity well.

The press agency AFP cites sources at Goddard as saying that NASA will announce the missions’ actual launch date in January 2019.

On Tuesday, NASA announced its selection of which satellites will ride aboard the SLS. Two hundred miles higher than the International Space Station, its altitude is the final stop to reach the moon.

The selection round included about 30 satellites, including eight that will send images of the moon in depth for decades to come, several have cameras that will allow scientists to capture a 3D map of the moon with unprecedented accuracy and two will carry 3D projections to show visitors the rock’s surface in the real world.

The cupola will be equipped with a view back to Earth, allowing scientists to take measurements and look for habitats to investigate further. The Falcon Heavy will also carry instruments such as an eye-tracking camera to point on the surface and a high-resolution camera that will allow astronauts to surveil the lunar surface.

The hopes of scientists are high, despite the lack of funding. Noting NASA’s optimism in an interview in 2014, Nasa said: “This first mission is more than an engineering effort, it’s a first step into the future of human space exploration.”

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