NASA’s new moon rocket has blasted off on its debut flight with three test dummies on board, bringing the United States a big step closer to putting astronauts back on the lunar surface for the first time since the end of the Apollo programme 50 years ago.
If all goes well during the three-week, make-or-break shakedown flight, the 32-storey tall rocket will propel an empty crew capsule into a wide orbit around the moon, and then the capsule will return to Earth with a splashdown in the Pacific in December.
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The launch marked the start of the space agency’s new flagship programme, Artemis. “We are going,” tweeted the space agency early on Wednesday.
After years of delays and billions in cost overruns, the Space Launch System rocket thundered skyward, rising from Kennedy Space Center on 4 million kilogrammes (8.8 million pounds) of thrust and hitting 160 kilometres per hour (100mph) within seconds.
The Orion capsule was perched on top, ready to bust out of Earth’s orbit towards the moon not quite two hours into the flight.
The moonshot follows nearly three months of vexing fuel leaks that kept the rocket bouncing between its hangar and the pad. The American space agency managed to plug a leak late on Tuesday night while fuelling the rocket for the middle of the night launch.
NASA expected 15,000 people to jam Kennedy Space Center for the launch, with thousands more lining the beaches and roads outside the gates.
‘Excited to see it go’
Andrew Trombley, a space enthusiast from St Louis, Missouri, was anxiously hoping for a successful liftoff after several futile trips made for the launch.
“I’ve been down here a couple of times already to watch this thing go up and have it cancelled, so, this is like, whatever, the third trip down here for this, so I’m excited to see it go,” said the engineer. “I was too little for the Apollo missions, so … I wanted to be here in person.”
The debut of the Space Launch System rocket, known as SLS, had three test dummies but no astronauts inside the crew capsule on top.
NASA’s top priority for the $4.1bn mission is to verify the capsule’s heat shield during re-entry, so four astronauts can strap in for the next moonshot in 2024. That would be followed by a two-person lunar landing in 2025.
NASA last sent astronauts to the moon in December 1972, closing out the Apollo programme. This time it hopes to build a sustained presence – including a lunar space station – to help prepare for an eventual mission to Mars.