NASA capsule on the way to the moon after the launch of a new giant rocket

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A space capsule launched for the moon Wednesday for the first time in 50 years, following the thunderous launch of NASA’s most powerful rocket in a dress rehearsal for astronaut flights.

There was no one on board for this debut flight, just three test dummies. The capsule heads into a wide orbit around the moon and 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 roared into the sky, rising from the Kennedy Space Center with 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust and reaching 100 mph (160 kph) in seconds. The Orion capsule was perched on top, and in less than a two-hour flight, it left Earth’s orbit and headed for the moon.

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

The moonshot follows nearly three months of puzzling fuel leaks that kept the rocket bouncing between its hangar and the pad. Forced back inland by Hurricane Ian in late September, the rocket held its own outside as Nicole passed by last week with gusts of more than 80 mph (130 kph). Although the wind caused some damage, the managers gave the green light to the launch.

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

The rocket sent a huge trail of flame into space, a crescent glowing brightly and buildings shaking.

Liftoff marked the start of NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, named after the mythological twin sister of Apollo. The space agency aims to send four astronauts around the moon on the next flight, in 2024, and land humans there in 2025.

“For the Artemis generation, this is for you,” said launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, referring to everyone born after Apollo. He later told his team: “They have earned their 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 put men on the moon. A series of hydrogen fuel leaks plagued summer launch attempts, as well as countdown tests. A new leak broke out at a new location during refueling Tuesday night, but an emergency crew squeezed the faulty valve on the platform. Then a US Space Force radar station went down, resulting in another scramble, this time to replace an Ethernet switch.

“The rocket, it’s alive. It’s creaking. It’s making ventilation noises. It’s pretty scary,” said Trent Annis, one of three men who entered the blast hazard zone to repair the leak. “My heart beating hard. My nerves were gone.”

Orion should reach the Moon on Monday, more than 370,000 kilometers (230,000 miles) from Earth. After coming within 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the moon, the capsule will enter a far orbit that will extend some 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) beyond.

The $4.1 billion test flight will last 25 days, about the same as when the crews will be on board. The space agency intends to push the spacecraft to its limits and discover any problems before the astronauts adjust. The test dummies — NASA calls them moonikins — are equipped with sensors to measure things like vibration, acceleration, and cosmic radiation.

Nelson warned that “things will go wrong” during this demo. Some minor problems arose early in the flight, although preliminary indications were that the propellers and engines performed well.

“Personally, I’m not going to rest well until we make it safely to splashdown and recovery,” said mission manager Mike Sarafin.

The rocket was supposed to have done its dry run test in 2017. Government watchdogs estimate that NASA will have spent $93 billion on the project 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 obstacles to overcome. The Orion capsule will carry astronauts only into lunar orbit, not to the surface.

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

Repeating an argument made during the 1960s, Duke University historian Alex Roland questions the value of human spaceflight, saying robots and remote-controlled spacecraft could do the job more economical, efficient and safe.

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

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

Most of NASA’s corps of 42 active astronauts and 10 trainees hadn’t even been born when Apollo 17 moonwalkers Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out the era, 50 years ago next month.

“We are taking off our spacesuits with enthusiasm,” said astronaut Christina Koch before launch.

After a nearly year-long mission to the International Space Station and an all-female spacewalk, Koch, 43, is on NASA’s short list for a lunar flight. So is astronaut Kayla Barron, 35, who finally got to witness her first rocket launch, not counting her own a year ago.

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

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

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