NASA’s new moon rocket lifted off on its test flight with three dummies on board early Wednesday, bringing the United States a big step closer to bringing astronauts back to the lunar surface for the first time in 50 year.
If all goes well during the three-week flight, the rocket will propel an empty crew capsule into a wide orbit around the Moon, before the capsule returns to Earth with a splashdown in the Pacific in December.
After years of delays and billions in cost overruns, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket thundered skyward, rising from Kennedy Space Center with 4 million pounds of thrust and reaching 100 mph in seconds .
“I’m telling you, we’ve never seen such a tail of flame,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who watched the launch with a group of astronauts.
“There was a bunch out there who would love to be on that rocket ship and I have to say, for what we saw tonight, it’s an A-plus,” he said.
The Orion capsule was perched atop the rocket and, less than two hours into the flight, left Earth orbit heading for the Moon.
“For the Artemis generation, this is for you,” launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson said shortly before liftoff, referring to people who weren’t alive for the Apollo program, which ended. 50 years ago.
Later, she told her team, “You have earned your place in history.”
The launch 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 early as 2025.
Takeoff after months of delay
The launch follows nearly three months of vexing fuel leaks that caused the rocket to bounce between its hangar and the pad.
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 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.
Orion is expected to reach the Moon by Monday, more than 370,000 km from Earth. After arriving within 130 km of the Moon, the capsule will enter a distant orbit extending approximately 64,000 km beyond.
Artemis Mission Director Mike Sarafin said the rocket was generally performing as it should.
He said there were a few minor issues which he called “funnies”, but Sarafin and other officials stressed that all systems were “performing”.
Orion program director Howard Hu said NASA will continue to test the engines and other functions of Artemis, especially under space conditions.
In a post-launch press conference, Nelson said: “It’s just the test flight, and we’re stressing it and testing it in a way that we wouldn’t with a human crew. But it’s That’s the goal, to make it as safe as possible, as reliable as possible, for when our astronauts crawl on board and return to the Moon.”
Test flight dummies in orbit for 25 days
The $4.1 billion (€3.9 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.
“There are quite a few risks with this particular initial flight test,” Sarafin said.
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.