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NASA’s most powerful rocket to the moon took off 50 years after Apollo

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s Moon rocket launched on its maiden flight with three test dummies on board Wednesday, bringing the United States 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 crew capsule will be launched into a wide orbit around the moon before returning to Earth with a powered fall into the Pacific Ocean in December.

After many years of delays and billions of overspends, Space launch system the rocket thundered into the sky, lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center with 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust and reaching 100 miles per hour (160 kilometers per hour) in seconds. The Orion capsule was sitting on top and after less than two hours of flight it broke away from Earth’s orbit towards the Moon.

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

The moonshot came after nearly three months of nasty fuel leaks that caused the rocket to bounce between the hangar and pad. Forced to return to the premises Hurricane Jan at the end of September, the missile stood outside as Nicole swept through last week with gusts of more than 80 mph (130 kph). Although the wind did some damage, managers gave the green light to launch.

An estimated 15,000 people gathered at the launch site, with thousands more lining the beaches and roads outside the gates, to witness the long-awaited sequel to NASA Project Apollowhen 12 astronauts walked on the moon in 1969 and 1972. Crowds also gathered outside NASA centers in Houston and Huntsville, Alabama, to watch the spectacle on giant screens.

Screams of joy accompanied the rocket as it flew into space in a huge trail of flames, the crescent moon glowed brightly, and the buildings shook as if struck by a massive earthquake.

“For the Artemis generation, this is for you,” urged launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, referring to anyone born after Apollo. She later told her team, “You’ve earned your place in history.”

The liftoff marked the beginning of NASA’s program to explore the moon Artemis, named after the mythological twin sister of Apollo. The space agency plans to send four astronauts around the moon on its next mission in 2024 and land humans there as early as 2025.

The 322-foot (98-meter) SLS rocket is the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA, with more thrust than the Space Shuttle or the mighty Saturn V that put men on the moon. A series of hydrogen fuel leaks hampered launch attempts in the summer as well as countdown tests. A new leak erupted in a new location during a refueling on Tuesday night, but emergency crews were able to tighten the faulty valve on the pad. Then a US space force radar station went down, leading to another scramble, this time to replace an Ethernet switch.

“Rocket, she’s alive. Squeak. It makes ventilation noises. It’s pretty scary,” said Trent Annis, one of three people who entered the blast zone to fix the leak Tuesday night. “My heart was pounding. I was getting nervous. 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 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the moon, the capsule will enter a high-altitude orbit that extends about 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) beyond.

The $4.1 billion test flight is scheduled to last 25 days, about as long as the crew will be on board. The space agency intends to push the spacecraft to its limits and detect any problems before the astronauts buckle up. The mannequins — NASA calls them lunar mannequins — are equipped with sensors to measure things like vibration, acceleration and cosmic radiation.

Nelson warned that “everything is going to go wrong” during this demonstration. A few minor problems had already occurred in flight, although preliminary indications were that the accelerators and engines were working well.

“Of course, we are relieved,” the head of the mission, Mike Sarafin, told reporters. But he added: “I personally am not going to have a good rest until we have safely landed and recovered.”

The rocket was supposed to make a run by 2017. According to government watchdogs, NASA will spend $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 obstacles still need to be overcome. The Orion capsule will only deliver astronauts to lunar orbit, not to the surface.

NASA has hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to develop Starship, the 21st century answer to the Apollo lunar lander. Starship will ferry astronauts between Orion and the lunar surface, at least on its first trip in 2025. The plan is to place Starship and eventually landers from other companies in orbit around the moon, ready for use whenever new Orion crews land.

Echoing an argument made in the 1960s, Duke University historian Alex Roland questions the value of human spaceflight, saying that robots and remotely piloted 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 — except for the prestige associated with that apparent consumption,” he said.

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

Most of NASA’s corps of 42 active astronauts and 10 trainees weren’t even born when Apollo 17 moonwalkers Gene Cernan and Garrison Schmidt ended that era 50 years ago next month.

“We are 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, was shortlisted by NASA to fly to the moon. So did astronaut Kayla Barron, 35, who finally witnessed her first rocket launch besides her own a year ago.

“It took my breath away and I burst into tears,” Barron said. “What an amazing achievement for this team.”


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