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NASA blazes a path back to the moon with Artemis rocket launch


The uncrewed mission is a crucial test for NASA’s Artemis program that aims to put astronauts back on the moon.

By Kenneth Chang


NASA’s majestic new rocket soared into space for the first time in the early hours of Wednesday, lighting up the night sky and accelerating on a journey that will take an astronaut-less capsule around the moon and back.


This flight, evoking the bygone Apollo era, is a crucial test for NASA’s Artemis program that aims to put astronauts, after five decades of loitering in low-Earth orbit, back on the moon.


“We are all part of something incredibly special,” Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the launch director, said to her team at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida after the launch. “The first launch of Artemis. The first step in returning our country to the moon and on to Mars.”


For NASA, the mission ushers in a new era of lunar exploration, one that seeks to unravel scientific mysteries in the shadows of craters in the polar regions, test technologies for dreamed-of journeys to Mars and spur private enterprise to chase new entrepreneurial frontiers farther out in the solar system.


At 1:47 a.m. Eastern time, the four engines on the rocket’s core stage ignited, along with two skinnier side boosters, As the countdown hit zero, clamps holding the rocket down let go, and the vehicle slipped Earth’s bonds.


The glare from the engines was as bright as a giant welding torch, turning night into day for a few minutes. A loud rumble then rolled over the space center.


As the rocket rose, its destination — the moon — was located just to the right in the night sky.


A few minutes later, the side boosters and then the giant core stage dropped away. The rocket’s upper engine then ignited to carry the Orion spacecraft, where astronauts will sit during later missions, toward orbit.


Less than two hours after launch, the upper stage fired one last time to send Orion on a path toward the moon. On Monday, Orion will pass within 60 miles of the moon’s surface. After going around the moon for a couple of weeks, Orion will head back to Earth, splashing down on Dec. 11 in the Pacific Ocean, about 60 miles off the coast of California.


The launch occurred years behind schedule, and billions of dollars over budget. The delays and cost overruns of SLS and Orion highlight the shortcomings of how NASA has managed its programs


The next Artemis mission, which is to take four astronauts on a journey around the moon but not to the surface, will launch no earlier than 2024. Artemis III, in which two astronauts will land near the moon’s south pole, is currently scheduled for 2025, although that date is very likely to slip further into the future.


Still, the sprawling expense of Artemis might be the cost of sustaining political support for a space program in a federal democracy, said Casey Dreier, the chief policy adviser for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit that promotes exploration of space. Even if Artemis is not the best or most efficient design, it provides jobs to the employees of NASA and aerospace companies across the country, he said. That provides continuing political support for the moon program.


“Congress has done nothing but add more money to Artemis every single year it’s been in existence,” Dreier said.


While private spaceflight proponents believe their approach will prevail, no one in Congress has yet pushed for canceling S.L.S. or Orion. The CHIPS and Science Act, recently signed into law by President Joe Biden, calls for NASA to include the vehicles in plans to send astronauts to Mars, and directs the agency to launch SLS at least once a year.


NASA is currently negotiating with the rocket’s manufacturers for up to 20 more launches.


“I think the program itself is shaping up to be very politically sustainable,” Dreier said. “I challenge people to show me the public anger about the SLS program and how it translates to political pressure to cancel it. And I just don’t see it.”

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