NASA’s Space Launch System launched its first Orion spacecraft to the moon early Wednesday.
The mission is a crewless test flight that will lay the groundwork for an Artemis moon landing.
It took 17 years and $50 billion to build the space hardware needed to return to the moon for the first time since 1972.
NASA’s most powerful rocket yet, carrying an Orion capsule designed to take astronauts to the moon, launched from Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday.
The spaceship is now embarking on a 25-day journey around the moon and back. It has no astronauts in tow, but if all goes well, NASA plans to send four people on Orion’s next voyage.
When the Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket first roared to life at 1:47 a.m. ET, its boosters and engines spewed fire and steam over the Florida swamp, generating 8.8 million pounds of thrust to lift the rocket from the launch pad and into the air. After eight minutes and 30 seconds of engines blazing and screaming through the atmosphere, the rocket’s orange, 15-story core stage unlocked from the Orion capsule and fell into the Pacific Ocean, sending the starship on its way to the moon.
Orion is now poised to travel about 1.3 million miles in a mission called Artemis I. It’s the first phase of NASA’s monumental plan to return to the moon, land astronauts on its surface, and establish a permanent base there. build and send a new space station to the moon. orbit around the moon.
NASA spent 17 years and $50 billion building SLS and Orion to put boots back on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. The agency will also enlist SpaceX’s mega rocket, dubbed Starship, to do the actual moon landing, since Orion was not designed to descend to the lunar surface.
Orion’s maiden flight is set to break records and end in a fiery low
Technical glitches and weather issues – including two hurricanes – have plagued Artemis I. The mission was originally set to launch in February, but NASA repeatedly pushed back the date as it investigated fuel tank problems, misbehaving engines and storm damage.
If all goes according to plan for this maiden flight, Orion will zip as close as 60 miles above the lunar surface, allowing lunar gravity to hurl it 40,000 miles past the moon — farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever gone. As it spins again, Orion would have to skim close to the moon again to get a gravitational push back to Earth.
The mission is designed to prove that the SLS rocket can safely deliver Orion to lunar orbit. It also aims to demonstrate that the crew pod can protect anyone during spaceflight, and crucially, that the spaceship’s heat shield will protect it during the fiery fall through Earth’s atmosphere and parachute drop into the Pacific Ocean. The splashdown is scheduled for December 11.
While there are no astronauts aboard Orion during this Artemis I test flight, scientists will assess how future astronauts will experience the stresses of space by measuring how many cosmic ray mannequins aboard the capsule endure during the test flight. The mission also launches several CubeSats, or miniature satellites, with science missions.
If the mission succeeds, Artemis II will be ready to carry astronauts on a similar journey around the moon. Artemis III would pair the Orion starship with a SpaceX starship to land two people on the south pole of the moon, including the first woman and first person of color to set foot on lunar soil. NASA aims to make that moon landing in 2025.
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