NASA’s new moon rocket blasted off on its first trip with three test dummies aboard on Wednesday, bringing the United States one step closer to returning explorers to the moon for the first time since the end of the Apollo program 50 years ago.
If all goes well during the three-week escape, the rocket will propel the empty capsule into a large orbit around the Moon, after which the capsule will return to Earth and explode in the Pacific in December.
After years of delay and billions of dollars in cost, the Space Launch System rocket hit the sky, rising from the Kennedy Space Center at 4 million kilograms (8.8 million pounds) and hitting 160km/h (100 mph) within seconds. The Orion capsule was positioned aloft, ready to leave Earth orbit for the Moon in less than two hours of flight.
The moon launch follows nearly three months of fuel leaks that caused the rocket to wobble between the launch pad and the pad. Forced to return indoors by Hurricane Ian at the end of September, the rocket remained outside when Nicole was swept away last week by a storm of more than 130km/h (80 mph). Although the wind blew three meters (10 feet) into the air near the capsule, managers gave the green light for the launch.
The launch was the start of NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, which was named Apollo’s twin sister. The space agency wants to send four astronauts around the Moon on the next trip, in 2024, and reach people there starting in 2025.
The 98-meter (322-foot) SLS is the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, with more power than the space shuttle or the powerful Saturn V that carries humans to the Moon.
Orion should reach the Moon by Monday, more than 370,000km (230,000 miles) from Earth. When it gets within 130km (80 miles) of the Moon, the capsule will enter an orbit that stretches about 64,000km (40,000 miles) beyond.
The $4.1bn test flight is expected to last 25 days, the same time the crew will be on board. The space agency wants to push the plane to its limits and uncover any problems before the astronauts get stuck. The mannequins – NASA calls them moonequins – are equipped with sensors to measure things like vibration, speed and cosmic rays.
The rocket is supposed to be dry by 2017. Government officials estimate that NASA will spend $93bn 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.