NASA’s new moon rocket took off on its maiden flight on Wednesday with three test dummies, bringing the US a big step closer to returning astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo program ended 50 years ago.
If all goes well during the three-week flight, the crewed capsule will be launched into a wide orbit around the moon, then return to Earth with a fall in the Pacific in December.
After years of delays and billions in cost overruns, the Space Launch System rocket took to the skies, lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center with 8.8 million pounds of thrust and reaching 100 mph (160 km/h) within seconds. The Orion capsule was perched atop and, less than two hours into the flight, blasted out of Earth’s orbit toward the Moon.
NASA says it plans to launch a rocket to the moon on Wednesday
NASA says it plans to launch a rocket to the moon on Wednesday
“It was pretty overwhelming,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “We’re going to explore the heavens, and this is the next step.”
The moonshot follows nearly three months of a pesky fuel leak that left the rocket bouncing between the hangar and the platform. Forced back in by Hurricane Ian in late September, the rocket stayed out as Nicole passed last week with gusts in excess of 130 km/h. Although the wind caused some damage, managers gave the go-ahead for the launch.
An estimated 15,000 people filled the launch site, with thousands more lining the beaches and roads outside the gates, to witness NASA’s long-awaited follow-up to Project Apollo, when 12 astronauts walked on the moon in 1969 and 1972. Crowds also gathered outside the NASA centers in Houston and Huntsville, Alabama, to watch the spectacle on giant screens.
The germs followed the rocket as it rode a huge trail of flames into space, the crescent moon shining brightly and the buildings shaking as if struck by a strong earthquake.
“For the Artemis generation, this is for you,” urged launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, referring to all those born after Apollo. She later told her team, “You’ve earned your place in history.”
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The liftoff marked the beginning of NASA’s Artemis moon exploration program, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister. The space agency aims to send four astronauts around the moon on the next flight, in 2024, and land people there as early as 2025.
The 98-meter SLS is the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, with more thrust than the space shuttle or the mighty Saturn V that carried men to the moon. A series of hydrogen fuel leaks hampered summertime launch attempts as well as countdown tests. The new leak occurred in a new location while refueling Tuesday night, but emergency crews were able to tighten the faulty panel valve. Then the US Space Force radar station went down, resulting in another incapacitation, this time due to a replacement ethernet switch.
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“Rocket, it’s alive. It squeaks. Makes ventilation noises. It’s pretty scary,” said Trent Annis, one of three men who entered the blast zone to fix the leak Tuesday night. “My heart was pounding. My nerves were going. But yes, we showed up today.”
Orion should reach the moon by Monday, more than 230,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) from Earth. After coming within 130 kilometers of the moon, the capsule will enter a distant orbit that extends about 64,000 kilometers away.
The $4.1 billion test flight is expected to last 25 days, about the same time the crew will be on the plane. The space agency intends to push the spacecraft to its limits and uncover any problems before the astronauts strap in. The mannequins — NASA calls them moonequins — are equipped with sensors to measure things like vibration, acceleration and cosmic radiation.
Nelson warned that “things are going to go wrong” during this demonstration. A few minor problems had already appeared during the flight, although preliminary indications were that the boosters and engines were working well.
“There’s definitely a sense of relief that we’re on our way,” mission leader Mike Sarafin told reporters. But he added: “I personally won’t get a good rest until we get safely to the descent and recovery.”
The rocket was supposed to be operational by 2017. Government watchdogs estimate that NASA will spend $93 billion on the project by 2025.
Ultimately, NASA hopes to establish a base on the moon and send astronauts to Mars by the late 2030s or early 2040s.
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But many obstacles still need to be overcome. The Orion capsule will only take astronauts into lunar orbit, not to the surface.
NASA has hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to develop Starship, the 21st century answer to Apollo’s lunar lander. Starship will transport astronauts between Orion and the lunar surface, at least on its maiden voyage in 2025. The plan is to station Starship and possibly other companies’ landers in orbit around the Moon, ready for use whenever the new Orion crew arrives.
Echoing an argument from the 1960s, Duke University historian Alex Roland questions the value of human spaceflight, saying that robots and remote-controlled spacecraft can do the job more cheaply, efficiently and safely.
“In all these years, no evidence has emerged to justify the investment we’ve made in human spaceflight — other than the prestige involved in this conspicuous consumption,” he said.
NASA is waiting for this test flight to finish before announcing the astronauts who will be on the next one and those who will follow in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11.
Most of NASA’s corps of 42 active astronauts and 10 trainees weren’t even born when Apollo 17 sleepwalkers Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out that era 50 years ago next month.
“We’re excited to jump out of our spacesuits,” astronaut Christina Koch said Tuesday.
After a nearly year-long mission on the space station and an all-female spacewalk, Koch, 43, is on NASA’s shortlist for a lunar flight. So did astronaut Kayla Barron, 35, who finally witnessed her first rocket launch, not counting her own a year ago.
“It took my breath away and I cried,” Barron said. “What an incredible achievement for this team.”