A new American rocket sits on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and for the first time in more than 50 years, an American spacecraft will head toward the surface of the moon. The rocket is called Vulcan and was built by the United Launch Alliance company. Here’s what you need to know about your first flight.
When is the release and how can I watch it?
Launch is scheduled for 2:18 a.m. ET on Monday. The coverage will be broadcast on NASA television starting at 1:30 a.m.
Forecasts give an 85 percent chance that the weather will be favorable. If the launch is delayed until Tuesday, weather conditions will deteriorate, with only a 30 percent chance that conditions will be favorable.
There are additional release opportunities on January 10 and 11.
Where is the lunar mission to orbit heading?
Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh is sending Peregrine, a robotic spacecraft, to land in Sinus Viscositatis (Latin for “Bay of Stickiness”), an enigmatic region on the near side of the moon. NASA is paying Astrobotic $108 million to conduct five experiments there, as part of the space agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The program aims to reduce the cost of shipping items to the lunar surface.
What is the Vulcan rocket and why is it important?
The Vulcan rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will replace the company’s two current rockets, the Altas V and Delta IV.
Since United Launch Alliance was formed in 2006, its primary business has been launching top-secret military payloads for the United States government. Their rockets were expensive (too expensive for most commercial customers) but very reliable. With Vulcan, ULA seeks a greater share in the commercial market. It has already sold more than 70 Vulcan launches, including 38 to Amazon as it builds Project Kuiper, a constellation of Internet communications satellites.
The United States Space Force would like to see two successful Vulcan launches before putting any of its payloads on board. Monday’s release is the first certification release. A second could occur in April. That would take Dream Chaser, an unmanned space plane built by Sierra Space of Louisville, Colorado, on a cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station.
If those flights are successful, four additional Vulcan launches this year would carry Space Force payloads to orbit.
Why is the rocket’s payload causing controversy?
The Navajo Nation objects to human ashes and DNA aboard Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander.
In addition to NASA’s five experiments, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander also carries several payloads for commercial customers. These include Celestis and Elysium Space, companies that commemorate people by sending some of their remains into space.
On Thursday, Buu Nygren, president of the Navajo Nation, said in a statement that he had sent a letter to NASA and the US Department of Transportation asking to postpone the launch.
“The moon is deeply rooted in the spirituality and heritage of many indigenous cultures, including our own,” he wrote. “The placement of human remains on the Moon is a profound description of this celestial body revered by our people.”
During press conferences, NASA officials noted that they were not in charge of the mission and had no direct say over other payloads that Astrobotic sold on Peregrine.
“An intergovernmental meeting is being organized with the Navajo Nation that NASA will support,” Joel Kearns, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration, said during a press conference Thursday.
John Thornton, Astrobotic’s chief executive, said Friday that he was disappointed that “this conversation came up so late” because his company had announced Celestis and Elysium’s involvement years ago.
“We’re really trying to do the right thing,” Thornton said. “I hope we can find a good path forward with the Navajo Nation.”