NASA Blazes a Path Back to the Moon With Artemis Rocket Launch

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — NASA’s majestic new rocket took to space for the first time in the early hours of Wednesday, lighting up the night sky and accelerating on a journey that will take a capsule without astronauts around the Moon and Return.

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

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

For NASA, the mission marks the beginning of a new era of lunar exploration, which seeks to unravel scientific mysteries in the shadows of craters in the polar regions, test technologies for dream trips to Mars, and spur private enterprise to pursue new frontiers. business beyond. out in the solar system.

As China and other countries race to explore space, Wednesday’s launch also highlights a growing philosophical tension about how the United States should pursue its space aspirations. NASA has spent more than $40 billion to date to get Artemis off the ground. The spending illustrates how the space program continues to resemble the way the Pentagon builds aircraft carriers and F-35 fighter jets: expensive and slow, but controlled primarily by the federal government because there is still no commercial market for the large rocket types. and deep rockets. space transports that NASA considers necessary for its lunar exploration program.

The alternative approach, in which NASA would be a customer or a passenger on a commercial spacecraft, could be cheaper and faster, relying on innovative spacecraft built by entrepreneurial companies like SpaceX, led by Elon Musk.

“If you were serious about going back to the moon, you would just get involved with commercial approaches,” said Charles Miller, who worked at NASA from 2009 to 2012 as a senior adviser for commercial space activities.

But the business approach may not deliver exactly what NASA and other government decision-makers want, and companies can often change plans or go out of business.

While it may not have appeased critics, the 322-foot-tall rocket, known as the Space Launch System, or SLS, was a commanding sight on the launch pad. However, with the launch time in the middle of the night, Florida’s Space Coast was not as crowded with spectators as it had been on previous launch attempts.

Wednesday’s launch attempt followed two failed launch attempts in August and September, one halted by an engine that appeared to be too hot and the other related to a hydrogen leak in a fuel line. Hurricane Ian led NASA to miss another launch window in late September and early October, and Hurricane Nicole caused a couple of days’ delay before launch on Wednesday.

The countdown went smoothly until a hydrogen leak appeared at a new location around 9:15 p.m. A “red team” of two technicians and a security officer went to the launch pad to tighten bolts on a valve. , which stopped the leak.

A faulty Ethernet switch also interrupted the countdown, cutting off radar data needed to track the rocket. The US Space Force, which ensures the safety of rocket launches from the Kennedy Space Center, replaced the equipment and the countdown resumed.

A final survey by Ms. Blackwell-Thompson confirmed that the rocket was ready to go into space.

At 1:47 a.m., all four engines in the rocket’s core stage ignited, along with two slimmer side boosters. As the countdown reached zero, the clamps holding the rocket released and the vehicle broke free of its restraints on Earth.

On takeoff, the engine flames were incredibly bright, like giant welding torches.

“I’m telling you, we’ve never seen a tail of llamas like that,” Nelson said.

As the rocket ascended, it produced a loud rumble of sound that rolled through the space center.

A few minutes later, the side thrusters and then the giant center stage parted ways. The rocket’s upper engine was then ignited to carry the Orion spacecraft, where the astronauts will sit during subsequent missions, toward orbit.

Less than two hours after launch, the upper stage fired one last time to send Orion on a path to the moon. On Monday, Orion will pass within about 80 miles of the moon’s surface. After circling the Moon for a couple of weeks, Orion will return to Earth, landing on December 11 in the Pacific Ocean, about 60 miles off the California coast.

“We have laid the foundation for the Artemis program and many generations to come,” John Honeycutt, program manager for the Space Launch System rocket, said at a post-launch news conference Wednesday.

The next Artemis mission, which will take four astronauts on a trip 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 scheduled currently for 2025, although that date is highly likely to move further into the future.

In a report from last year, NASA’s inspector general estimated that by the time Artemis III returned from the moon, NASA would have spent $93 billion on the program and that each launch of the Space Launch System and Orion would cost more than $4 billion. The cost overruns were caused in part by technical problems, mismanagement, and changes to NASA’s plans and schedules. And like the old Saturn V, the expensive Space Launch System rocket is used only once before falling into the ocean.

By simplifying manufacturing, “we hope to achieve a cost of about $2 billion” per launch, Sharon Cobb, NASA’s associate program manager for the Space Launch System, said during an interview in August.

By contrast, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, while not as powerful as SLS, costs $90 million per launch. And SpaceX’s Starship, a giant next-generation rocket currently in development that is also central to NASA’s astronaut moon landing plans, will be fully reusable, and Musk has said, perhaps a little too optimistically, that a launch could eventually cost as little as $10 million

For Artemis, NASA has taken a mixed approach: a traditional program for the rocket and crew capsule, and a commercial strategy for the lunar lander. NASA is buying from SpaceX, at a fixed price, a Starship flight to serve as the lander for the Artemis III mission later in the decade. The Starship will dock with Orion in orbit around the moon and carry two astronauts to the surface near the lunar south pole.

The delays and cost overruns from SLS and Orion highlight the shortcomings in the way NASA has managed its programs, but Musk’s company, for all the impressive technological advances it has made so far, is also not guaranteed to solve all the problems. Starship development challenges as fast as Mr. Musk could hope to.

His company has had fantastic success with its Falcon 9 rocket, following NASA’s investment in carrying cargo and later astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The cargo contract provided a key infusion of money to Musk’s company and gave NASA the imprimatur of approval when SpaceX was still little known and largely untested. It now dominates the satellite launch business.

For NASA, this was also a great victory. Because NASA is just one of many SpaceX customers, SpaceX is able to offer much lower costs.

Those successes, however, do not guarantee that Starship will also succeed. If SpaceX stumbles, NASA’s gamble on the company’s new spacecraft risks leaving the United States wasting its investment while it still waits for a lunar lander for Artemis III.

Still, spending on Artemis expansion could be the cost of maintaining political support for a space program in a federal democracy, said Casey Dreier, senior policy adviser for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit that promotes space exploration. space. Even if Artemis isn’t the best or most efficient design, it provides jobs for employees of NASA and aerospace companies across the country, he said. That provides continued political support for the lunar program.

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

So far, politicians have faced little to no public protest in voting to fund Artemis missions. Even if it saved NASA money, the commercial approach could provoke further opposition, fueling the perception that the agency has outsourced its space program to billionaires like Musk; Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder who started the Blue Origin rocket company; and Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic transports tourists on short suborbital flights.

Consider the anger of many people towards Mr. Bezos and Mr. Branson last year when they took suborbital trips into space built by the companies that started with their wealth. The fact that Branson and Bezos did not rely on federal funding to start their space tourism businesses did not assuage the anger that space seemed to be becoming the playground of the super-rich.

So the decision to turn to companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin could trigger criticism that NASA was only increasing the wealth of billionaires who would one day escape mundane problems to private space stations and off-world colonies.

“By aligning our space program with very famous idiosyncratic people, that could be a bigger political risk for me,” Dreier said.

Proponents of commercial space argue that history does not support this dystopian vision. Rather, they point to the entrepreneurs of a century ago who transformed aviation from a luxury within the reach of a few into transportation that was safe and affordable for nearly everyone.

While private spaceflight advocates believe their approach will prevail, no one in Congress has yet pushed to cancel SLS or Orion. The CHIPS and Science Act, signed into law by President 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 manufacturers for up to 20 more launches.

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