NASA’s new moonshot rocket blasted off on its first flight, carrying three test dummies as the U.S. takes a big step toward putting astronauts back on the lunar surface for the first time in 50 years.
The rocket will take off during the three-week, make-or-break shakedown flight, and if everything goes well we’ll have a crew capsule in orbit around the moon. The capsule will return to Earth with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean in December.
After decades of delays and billions in cost overruns, the Space Launch System rocket took flight, rising from Kennedy Space Center on 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust. The Orion capsule was perched on top and it was ready to bust out of Earth’s orbit toward the moon within 2 hours of flight time.
At the end of September 2017, Hurricane Nicole swept through the area and caused a 10-foot tall strip of caulking to come away from high up near the capsule. However, managers gave the go-ahead for the launch because they had successfully dealt with nearly three months’ worth of fuel leaks.
Hundreds of thousands of people came to witness the launch. Fifteen, 000 jammed the launch site, but there were thousands more lining the beaches, roads and NASA centers across the country who watched on giant screens.
“This is for the Artemis generation,” launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson said shortly before liftoff, referring to young people who were not alive during Apollo.
The liftoff began NASA’s Artemis program, named after Apollo’s twin sister. The crew plans to send four astronauts around the moon on the next flight, in 2024, and land humans on the lunar surface by 2025.
With more powerful thrust than the space shuttle or Saturn V, the SLS is the most powerful rocket ever created. However, there are a series of catastrophic setbacks preventing launch on several memorable occasions. Following one recent leak, an emergency team was sent to tighten the faulty valve on the pad – only to cause another problem moments later. A U.S. Space Force radar station went down, resulting in another scramble within NASA from replacing an ethernet switch.
After coming within 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the moon, Orion and its capsule will enter a far-flung orbit. The trajectory will take the capsule 230,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) away from Earth.
NASA will be looking at 25 days of trials leading up to when they put humans on board. Their focus is to fully test the spacecraft and find problems before astronauts can go, which is why they have mannequins fitted with data-gathering sensors.
“There is a fair amount of risk with this particular initial flight test,” said mission controller Mike Sarafin.
We were supposed to have made our first dry run by 2017. By 2025, Government watchdogs estimate that NASA will have spent $93 billion on the project.
The long-term goal is to establish a moon base and send astronauts to Mars. This could happen as soon as the late 2030s or early 2040s.
The Orion capsule is a promising (though untested) solution – it will take astronauts to lunar orbit, but not the surface.
NASA has hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to develop Starship, the 21st-century version of Apollo’s lunar lander. This technology will allow astronauts to travel back and forth between the International Space Station and the lunar surface. There are plans to station the Starship and other companies’ landers in orbit around the moon, ready for use whenever crews visit with Orion.
Duke University historian Alex Roland argues against the value of human spaceflight. He believes robots and remote-controlled spacecraft could accomplish this more efficiently, cheaply, and safely than humans could.
“After all these years, there is still no evidence that justifies the investment we have made in human spaceflight. All I can think of is this conspicuous consumption of prestige.”
Until the test flight is over and the astronauts are introduced, we won’t know who will take part in any future Apollo missions.
All of the courageous astronauts who were on the Apollo missions to the moon were born before the latest mission – Apollo 17 – took place. This was 50 years ago, next month.
“We are jumping out of our spacesuits with excitement,” astronaut Christina Koch said just hours before liftoff. After a nearly yearlong space station mission and all-female spacewalk, she’s on NASA’s short list for a lunar flight.