A brand-new American rocket is on a launchpad at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and for the first time in more than 50 years, an American spacecraft will be headed toward the surface of the moon. The rocket is called Vulcan, and it was built by the company United Launch Alliance. Here’s what you need to know about its first flight.
When is the launch, and how can I watch it?
The launch is scheduled for 2:18 a.m. Eastern on Monday. Coverage will be broadcast on NASA Television beginning at 1:30 a.m.
Forecasts give an 85 percent chance of favorable weather. If the launch is delayed to Tuesday, weather conditions will deteriorate, with only a 30 percent chance of favorable conditions.
There are additional launch opportunities on Jan. 10 and Jan. 11.
What is the moon mission heading to orbit?
Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh is sending Peregrine, a robotic spacecraft, that is 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 take five experiments there, part of the space agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS. The program aims to lower the cost of sending items to the lunar surface.
What is the Vulcan rocket, and why is it important?
The Vulcan rocket, built by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will replace the company’s two current rockets, the Altas V and the Delta IV.
Since the United Launch Alliance formed in 2006, its main business has been launching top-secret military payloads for the United States government. Its rockets were expensive — too expensive for most commercial customers — but highly reliable. With Vulcan, U.L.A. is seeking a greater share of 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 it puts any of its payloads aboard. Monday’s launch is the first certification launch. A second could occur as soon as April. That would lift Dream Chaser, an uncrewed space plane built by Sierra Space of Louisville, Colo., 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 is objecting to human ashes and DNA aboard Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander.
In addition to the five NASA experiments, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander is also carrying several payloads for commercial customers. Those include Celestis and Elysium Space, companies that memorialize people by sending some of their remains to space.
On Thursday, Buu Nygren, the president of the Navajo Nation, said in a statement that he had sent a letter to NASA and the United States Department of Transportation that called for postponing the launch.
“The moon is deeply embedded 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 news conferences, NASA officials noted that they were not in charge of the mission and that they had no direct say on other payloads that Astrobotic sold on Peregrine.
”There’s an intergovernmental meeting being set up with the Navajo Nation that NASA will support,” Joel Kearns, a deputy associate administrator for exploration at NASA, said during a news conference on Thursday.
John Thornton, the chief executive of Astrobotic, said on Friday that he was disappointed that “this conversation came up so late in the game,” because his company had announced the participation of Celestis and Elysium years ago.
“We really are trying to do the right thing,” Mr. Thornton said. “I hope we can find a good path forward with the Navajo Nation.”