RETURN TO THE MOON: New NASA rocket launches Orion spaceship on its first flight, blazing a trail for astronaut missions

space launch system rocket lifts off from launchpad at night

NASA’s Space Launch System lifts off for the Artemis I mission, November 15, 2022, at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.NASA TV

  • NASA’s Space Launch System launched its first Orion spaceship to the moon early Wednesday.

  • The mission is an uncrewed flight test that will lay the foundation 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 carry astronauts to the moon, blasted off from Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday.

The spaceship is now embarking on a 25-day journey around the moon and back. It doesn’t have astronauts in tow, but if all goes well, NASA plans to send four people on Orion’s next journey.

As the Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket roared to life for the first time at 1:47 a.m. ET, its boosters and engines spewed fire and steam across the Florida swamp, generating 8.8 million pounds of thrust to heave the rocket off the launchpad and into the skies. After eight minutes and 30 seconds of burning its engines and screaming through the atmosphere, the rocket’s orange, 15-story core stage unlatched from the Orion capsule and fell into the Pacific Ocean, leaving the spaceship on a trajectory toward the moon.

illustration shows spaceship with solar panel wings flying past the far side of the moon with earth in the distance

An illustration of the Orion spacecraft circling the moon.NASA

Orion is now set to travel approximately 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, build a permanent base there, and send a new space station into lunar orbit.

NASA spent 17 years and $50 billion building SLS and Orion in order to put boots back on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. The agency will also enlist SpaceX’s mega-rocket, called Starship, to do the actual moon landing, since Orion isn’t designed to descend to the lunar surface.

Orion’s first flight aims to break records and end in a fiery plummet

illustration shows orion capsule fireball streaking toward earth

An artist’s illustration of the Orion capsule reentering Earth’s atmosphere and plummeting toward splashdown.NASA/Liam Yanulis

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 the date back as it investigated fuel-tank issues, misbehaving engines, and storm damage.

If everything goes according to plan for this first flight, Orion will zip as close as 60 miles above the lunar surface, allowing lunar gravity to sling it 40,000 miles past the moon — farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever gone. As it loops back around, Orion should once again skim close to the moon to get a gravitational push back toward Earth.

Artemis 1 mission map.

Artemis I mission map.NASA

The mission is designed to prove the SLS rocket can safely deliver Orion to lunar orbit. It also aims to demonstrate that the crew capsule can protect anyone inside during spaceflight, and crucially, that the spaceship’s heat shield will preserve it during the fiery-hot plummet through Earth’s atmosphere and parachute fall into the Pacific Ocean. The splashdown is scheduled for December 11.

Though no astronauts are aboard Orion this Artemis I test flight, scientists will assess how future astronauts will experience the stresses of space by measuring how much cosmic radiation mannequins aboard the capsule endure during the test flight. The mission is also launching several CubeSats, or miniature satellites, with science missions.

If the mission succeeds, Artemis II stands to carry astronauts on a similar trip around the moon. Artemis III would dock the Orion spaceship to a SpaceX Starship to land two people on the moon’s south pole, including the first woman and the first person of color to set foot on lunar soil. NASA aims to make that lunar landing in 2025.

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