Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) — A space capsule blasted toward the moon Wednesday for the first time in 50 years, following a thunderous launch of NASA’s mighty rocket during a dress rehearsal for astronauts.
There was no one on this debut flight, just three test dummies. The capsule goes into a wide orbit around the moon, then returns to Earth with a splashdown in the Pacific in about three weeks.
After years of delays and billions in cost overruns, the Space Launch System The rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center with 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust and flew at 100 mph (160 kph) in seconds. The Orion capsule sits aloft and, within two hours of flight, exits Earth’s orbit toward the Moon.
“It was too much,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “We’re going to explore the sky, and this is the next step.”
Moonshot follows a nearly three-month fuel leak that bounces the rocket between its hangar and pad. Hurricane Ian returned home at the end of September, Nicole had sustained winds of 80 mph (130 kph) last week, and Rocket stood out. Although the wind caused some damage, managers gave the missile the green light.
About 15,000 people jammed the launch pad, and thousands lined the beaches and roads outside the gates, to witness the continuation of NASA’s long-awaited Apollo project.12 astronauts walked on the moon in 1969 and 1972. Crowds gathered outside NASA centers in Houston and Huntsville, Alabama, to watch the spectacle on giant screens.
A half-moon glowed brightly and the buildings shook, as the rocket shot a huge plume of flames into space.
It marked the start of NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, named after Apollo’s mythical twin sister. The space agency aims to send four astronauts around the moon on its next mission in 2024 and land humans there in 2025.
“For the Artemis generation, this one’s for you,” said launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, referring to all those born after Apollo. He then told his team: “You have earned your place in history.”
The 322-foot (98-meter) SLS is the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA, with more thrust than the Space Shuttle or the mighty Saturn V that carried men to the Moon. A series of hydrogen fuel leaks affected summer launch attempts and countdown tests. A new leak erupted at a new location during the Tuesday night refueling, but an emergency team tightened the wrong valve on the pad. Then a US Space Force radar station went down, resulting in another scramble, this time over an Ethernet switch.
“The rocket, it’s alive. It’s screeching. It’s making ventilation noises. It’s very scary,” said Trent Annis, one of three people who entered the blast zone to repair the leak. “My heart was pounding. My nerves were going.”
Orion, 230,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) from Earth, should reach the moon on Monday. After coming within 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the Moon, the capsule will enter a deep orbit that stretches 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) away.
The $4.1 billion test flight will last 25 days, roughly the same time the crews will be on board. The space agency wants to push the spacecraft to its limits and detect any problems before the astronauts get inside. The test dummies — NASA calls them Mooneykins — are equipped with sensors to measure things like vibration, acceleration and cosmic radiation.
Nelson warned that “things will go wrong” during this demo. There were some minor problems with the launch of the flight, although preliminary indications were that the boosters and engines were working well.
“I’m personally not going to rest well until we splash down and come safely to recovery,” said mission manager Mike Sarafin.
The rocket reached its dry run by 2017. Government watchdogs estimate that NASA will have spent $93 billion on the program by 2025.
Ultimately, NASA hopes to establish a base on the moon and send astronauts to Mars in the late 2030s or early 2040s.
There are still many hurdles to overcome. The Orion capsule will only take astronauts into lunar orbit, not the surface.
NASA has hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build Starship, the 21st-century answer to Apollo’s lunar lander. Starship will ferry astronauts back and forth between Orion and the lunar surface, at least in 2025 on the first mission. The plan is to station Starship and other companies’ landers around the moon, ready for use whenever new Orion crews arrive. .
Revisiting an argument raised in the 1960s, Duke University historian Alex Rowland questioned the value of human spaceflight, saying that robots and remote-controlled spacecraft could 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 — save the prestige associated with this conspicuous consumption,” he said.
NASA is waiting until this test mission is over before introducing the next astronauts, who will follow in the footsteps of Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Most of NASA’s force of 42 active astronauts and 10 trainees had not yet been born when Apollo 17 moonwalkers Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt closed the era 50 years ago next month.
Before launch, astronaut Christina Koch said, “We jump out of our spacesuits with excitement.
After nearly a year of International Space Station work and an all-female spacewalk, Koch, 43, is on NASA’s short list for a lunar flight. 35-year-old astronaut Kayla Baron also finally saw her first rocket launch, not counting her rocket launch a year ago.
“It took my breath away and I was torn,” Baron said. “What an amazing achievement for this team.”
The Associated Press is supported by the Department of Health and Science, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.
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