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Cosmic Space

NASA rolls back its SLS moon rocket to make repairs

NASA brought its Space Launch System rocket back to one of the world’s biggest repair shops — the 526-foot-tall Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida — to fix some flaws that turned up during rehearsals for a mission beyond the moon.

It took 10 hours to roll the 322-foot-tall, 3.5 million-pound rocket on its mobile launch platform from Launch Complex 39B to the VAB. The 4-mile journey, which made use of a giant crawler-transporter handed down from the Apollo and space shuttle programs, was basically a rewind of the rocket’s trip to the pad on March 17-18.

NASA had hoped to conduct a “wet dress rehearsal” for the launch of the SLS and its Orion deep-space capsule on an uncrewed trip around the moon. That mission, known as Artemis 1, is meant to set the stage for a crewed round-the-moon mission in 2024 and the first crewed landing on the moon since the Apollo era in 2025 or 2026.

Unfortunately for NASA, the practice runs came across some issues that need to be addressed in the days and weeks ahead.

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GeekWire

NASA lays out its plan for another moon lander

NASA has laid out its plan for choosing a second commercial venture to build a landing system capable of carrying astronauts to and from the lunar surface.

The venture would provide a competitive alternative to SpaceX’s lunar landing system, which is based on its Starship design and won a $2.9 billion NASA contract last April. The Starship lunar lander is scheduled to take on an uncrewed test mission to the moon in 2024, followed by the first crewed lunar landing for NASA’s Artemis program in 2025.

“We expect approximately one human landing per year, over a decade or so, and these are not isolated missions,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said today. “Each is going to build on the past progress. … And all of that is, of course, in preparation for us then to have the first human mission to Mars late in the 2030s or 2040.”

When SpaceX won NASA’s nod last April, two competitors for the contract — Alabama-based Dynetics and a team led by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture — complained that NASA should have made more than one award, in the interest of promoting competition. Some members of Congress, including Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., made similar arguments.

Nelson said the new program, known as the Sustaining Lunar Development contract or NextSTEP Appendix P, would address those complaints. “I promised competition, so here it is,” he told reporters.

If the program proceeds according to plan, the second company’s landers would go into service in the 2026-2027 time frame, starting with an uncrewed test mission to the lunar surface.

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Cosmic Space

The stage is set for NASA moon rocket’s rehearsal

For the first time in nearly 50 years, a NASA rocket capable of sending humans to the moon is sitting on its launch pad.

The overnight rollout of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, topped by an Orion capsule, evoked memories of the Saturn V rocket launches that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon from Kennedy Space Center in Florida between 1968 and 1972.

The SLS is being prepared for a monthlong test mission known as Artemis 1, which will send the Orion on an uncrewed flight around the moon and back. That flight, currently set for the May-June time frame, is due to be followed by a crewed round-the-moon mission in 2024, and then a mission to send astronauts to lunar surface in 2025.

The precise timing of all these missions depends on the outcome of on-the-ground tests of the multibillion-dollar rocket. Those tests are due to take place over the next couple of weeks and come to a climax next month with a dress rehearsal for launch.

The stage for the rehearsal was set when the 322-foot-tall, 3.5 million-pound rocket rolled out of Kennedy Space Center’s giant Vehicle Assembly Building on a crawler-transporter that was retooled from the space shuttle era. After a trek that took nearly 11 hours, the rocket was fixed in place at around 4:15 a.m. ET (1:15 a.m. PT) today at Launch Complex 39B, which was first used for Apollo 10’s launch in 1969.

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Fiction Science Club

The realities behind the ridiculousness of ‘Moonfall’

Even geophysicist Mika McKinnon, one of the science consultants for a $140 million disaster movie called “Moonfall,” admits that the moon-crashing tale is ridiculously exuberant.

So what’s wrong with that?

“A movie is supposed to be fun, and science is allowed to be fun,” McKinnon says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction. “You don’t need to nitpick at it, or rip it all apart.”

Science-minded spoilsports would probably find it about as easy to rip apart the plot of “Moonfall” as it was for giant tidal waves to rip apart the space shuttle launch pad at California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base in the movie. (One of the plot twists involves taking the shuttle Endeavour off its L.A. museum perch and blasting off from Vandenberg, which was once set up as a shuttle launch site.)

The movie is based on a premise that’s even harder to imagine than resurrecting a space shuttle for a lunar mission: A conspiracy theorist (portrayed by portly John Bradley of “Game of Thrones” fame) discovers that the moon is spiraling out of orbit toward Earth, and eventually persuades NASA to go into world-saving mode (with Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson playing leading roles).

“Moonfall” riffs on the recent scientific speculation over alien megastructures, throws in a villainous swarm of nanobots, and adds a dash of Apollo moon-hoax hokum. It’s the kind of ripped-from-the-tabloid-headlines approach that’s worked in the past for the film’s director, Roland Emmerich, in movies like “Independence Day,” “2012” and “The Day After Tomorrow.”

“There are some who believe that the moon is not a natural object,” Emmerich says in the “Moonfall” production notes. “I thought that was an intriguing idea for a movie. What happens if this object falls down to Earth?”

McKinnon and the movie’s other science consultants were tasked with providing plausible answers to that implausible question.

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GeekWire

Amazon’s Alexa will ride on NASA’s Orion moon ship

Alexa, when are we arriving at the moon?

Putting Amazon’s AI-enabled voice assistant on a moon-bound spaceship may sound like science fiction (hello, HAL!). But it’s due to become science fact later this year when a radiation-hardened console rides along in NASA’s Orion deep-space capsule for the Artemis 1 round-the-moon mission.

There’ll be no humans aboard for the test flight, which will mark the first launch of NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket. Instead, Alexa’s voice, and Echo’s pulsing blue ring, will be interacting with operators at Houston’s Mission Control for a technology demonstration created by Lockheed Martin, Amazon and Cisco.

The project is known as Callisto — a name that pays tribute to the mythological nymph who was a follower of the Greek goddess Artemis.

“Callisto will demonstrate a first-of-its-kind technology that could be used in the future to enable astronauts to be more self-reliant as they explore deep space,” Lisa Callahan, Lockheed Martin’s vice president and general manager of commercial civil space, said in a news release.

Including Alexa on the mission is particularly meaningful for Aaron Rubenson, vice president of Amazon Alexa. “The Star Trek computer was actually a key part of the original inspiration for Alexa — this notion of an ambient intelligence that is there when you need it … but then also fades into the background when you don’t need it,” he said during a teleconference.

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Universe Today

NASA’s first Artemis moon landing slips to 2025

NASA has pushed back the timetable for landing astronauts on the moon for the first time in more than a half-century from 2024 to no earlier than 2025.

Blue Origin’s unsuccessful legal challenge to a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract awarded to SpaceX was one of the factors behind the delay in the Artemis moon program, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a Nov. 9 teleconference.

Nelson also pointed to Congress’ previous decisions not to fund the lander program as fully as NASA wanted, plus delays forced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that “the Trump administration target of a 2024 human landing was not grounded in technical feasibility.”

“After having taken a good look under the hood these past six months, it’s clear to me that the agency will need to make serious changes for the long-term success of the program,” he told reporters.

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GeekWire

A win for SpaceX: Blue Origin loses lunar lander lawsuit

A federal judge today rejected Blue Origin’s challenge to a $2.9 billion contract that NASA awarded to SpaceX for building the lunar lander destined to carry astronauts to the moon.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ space venture had argued that NASA gave overly wide leeway to SpaceX in advance of the contract award in April — but Judge Richard Hertling of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims rejected Blue Origin’s arguments. His opinion was sealed, pending a Nov. 18 conference to discuss which details needed to be redacted for competitive reasons.

In a statement, NASA said that it would resume work with SpaceX under the terms of the contract “as soon as possible.”

Bezos tweeted that today’s ruling was “not the decision we wanted, but we respect the court’s judgment, and wish full success for NASA and SpaceX on the contract.”

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GeekWire

Court filings shed light on lunar lander fight

Redacted versions of documents relating to Blue Origin’s federal lawsuit against the federal government and SpaceX lay out further details about the dispute over a multibillion-dollar NASA lunar lander contract, but the details that are left out are arguably just as intriguing.

Today the U.S. Court of Federal Appeals released the 59-page text of the Blue Origin-led industry consortium’s complaint, which was filed in August. The court also shared redacted responses from SpaceX.

The filings focus on NASA’s April decision to award SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to develop its Starship super-rocket as the landing system for the Artemis program’s first crewed trip to the lunar surface, planned for as early as 2024.

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Universe Today

NASA picks the target for its water-hunting moon rover

NASA says its VIPER rover will head for the western edge of Nobile Crater near the moon’s south pole in 2023, targeting a region where shadowed craters are cold enough for water ice to exist, but where enough of the sun’s rays reach to keep the solar-powered robot going.

Today’s announcement provides a focus for a mission that’s meant to blaze a trail for Artemis astronauts who are scheduled to land on the lunar surface by as early as 2024, and for a sustainable lunar settlement that could take shape by the end of the decade.

“Once it’s on the surface, it will search for ice and other resources on and below the lunar surface that could one day be used and harvested for long-term human exploration of the moon,” Lori Glaze, director of the planetary science division at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said during a teleconference.

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GeekWire

NASA awards millions to keep lunar lander dreams alive

Months after losing out to SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and two of its partners in a lunar lander project will be getting fresh infusions of financial support from NASA, thanks to a follow-up program aimed at boosting capabilities for putting astronauts on the moon.

Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman aren’t the only companies sharing a total of $146 million in fixed-price awards. SpaceX and Dynetics — the two rivals of the Blue Origin-led “National Team” in NASA’s previous lunar lander solicitation — will get pieces of the pie as well.

The follow-up program, NextSTEP Appendix N, seeks expertise to help NASA shape the strategy and requirements for a future solicitation that’ll be focused on establishing regular crewed transportation from lunar orbit to the moon’s surface.

That’s different from the competitive process that resulted in SpaceX winning a $2.9 billion contract from NASA in April to adapt its Starship super-rocket as a lunar landing system. That development program, NextSTEP Appendix H, covers only the first crewed landing of NASA’s Artemis moon program, tentatively set for 2024. Appendix N would set the stage for the landings that are expected to follow.