Artemis takes off and begins a new chapter of human lunar exploration

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s new moon rocket lifted off on its maiden flight with three test dummies on board Wednesday, bringing the United States a big step closer to getting astronauts back on the lunar surface for the first time since the end of the Apollo Program 50 years ago.

If all goes well during the three-week tune-up flight, the crew capsule will be blasted into a wide orbit around the moon, then return to Earth with a Pacific dip in December.

After years of delays and billions in cost overruns, the Space Launch System rocket thundered skyward, rising from Kennedy Space Center with 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust and reaching 100 mph (160 km/h) in seconds. The Orion capsule was perched atop and, less than two hours into the flight, was lifted out of Earth orbit toward the moon.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “We’re going to explore the skies, and that’s the next step.”

The moonshot follows nearly three months of vexing fuel leaks that caused the rocket to bounce between its hangar and the pad. Pushed back indoors by Hurricane Ian in late September, the Rocket held its own outdoors as Nicole swept through last week with gusts of over 80mph (130kph). Although the wind caused some damage, officials gave the go-ahead for the launch.

About 15,000 people jammed the launch site, with thousands more lining the beaches and roads outside the gates, to witness NASA’s long-awaited Project Apollo sequel, when 12 astronauts walked on the moon from 1969 to 1972. Crowds also gathered outside NASA centers. to Houston and Huntsville, Alabama, to watch the show on giant screens.

Cheers accompanied the rocket as it raced in a huge trail of flames into space, with a half moon shining brightly and buildings shaking as if hit by a major earthquake.

“For the Artemis generation, this is for you,” launched launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, referring to anyone born after Apollo. Later, she told her team, “You have earned your place in history.”

NASA’s new moon rocket lifted off on its maiden flight with three test dummies on board early Wednesday.

Liftoff marked the start of NASA’s Artemis lunar 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 to land humans there as soon as 2025.

The 322-foot (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 plagued summer launch attempts as well as countdown testing. Another leak erupted at a new location during Tuesday night’s refueling, but an emergency crew managed to tighten the faulty valve on the pad. Then a US Space Force radar station failed, leading to another scramble, this time to replace an Ethernet switch.

“The rocket, it is alive. It creaks. It makes ventilation noises. It’s pretty scary,” said Trent Annis, one of three men who entered the blast danger zone to repair the Tuesday night leak. “My heart was beating. My nerves were going. But yeah, we showed up today.

Orion is expected to reach the Moon by Monday, more than 230,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) from Earth. After coming within 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the moon, the capsule will enter a distant orbit extending about 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) beyond.

The $4.1 billion test flight is expected to last 25 days, about the same as the crews on board. The space agency intends to push the spacecraft to its limits and discover any problems before the astronauts dock. The dummies – NASA calls them moonequins – are fitted with sensors to measure things like vibration, acceleration and cosmic radiation.

Nelson warned that “things will go wrong” during this demo. A few minor issues have already surfaced in flight, although preliminary indications were that the boosters and motors were working fine.

“There’s certainly a relief that we’re on our way,” mission manager Mike Sarafin told reporters. But he added: “Personally, I’m not going to rest well until we get to the splash and recovery safely.”

The rocket was supposed to have completed its dry run by 2017. Government watchdogs estimate NASA will have spent $93 billion on the project by 2025.

Eventually, NASA hopes to establish a base on the Moon and send astronauts to Mars by the late 2030s or early 2040s.

But many hurdles still need to be overcome. The Orion capsule will only take astronauts to 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 ferry astronauts between Orion and the lunar surface, at least on the first trip in 2025. The plan is to station Starship and possibly other companies’ landers in orbit around the moon, ready for use whenever new Orion crews will stop. .

Picking up on an argument that was made in the 1960s, Duke University historian Alex Roland questions the value of manned spaceflight, saying robots and remotely operated spacecraft could do the job cheaply. , efficiently and safely.

“In all these years, no evidence has emerged to justify the investment we have made in human spaceflight – except the prestige involved in this conspicuous consumption,” he said.

NASA is waiting for the end of this test flight before presenting the astronauts who will be on the next one and those who will follow in the footsteps of Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Most of the bodies of 42 active astronauts and 10 NASA trainees had not even been born when Apollo 17 moonwalkers Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed the era 50 years ago next month.

“We’re jumping out of our spacesuits with excitement,” astronaut Christina Koch said Tuesday.

After a nearly year-long space station mission and an all-female spacewalk, Koch, 43, is on NASA’s shortlist for a lunar flight. The same goes for astronaut Kayla Barron, 35, who was finally able to witness her first rocket launch, not counting her own a year ago.

“It took my breath away and I was in tears,” Barron said. “What an incredible achievement for this team.”

The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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