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 an unmanned capsule around the moon and back.
This flight, which evokes the ancient Apollo era, is a critical test for NASA’s Artemis Program It aims to return astronauts, after five decades loitering in low-Earth orbit, to the Moon.
“We’re all part of something incredibly special,” launch manager Charlie Blackwell-Thompson told her team at Kennedy Space Center after the launch. “First launch of Artemis. First step in returning our country to the Moon and then to Mars.”
For NASA, the mission heralds 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 dream trips to Mars and motivate private companies to chase the frontiers of new entrepreneurship even further. in the solar system.
as such China And the else Countries They are competing to explore space, and Wednesday’s launch also highlights a growing philosophical tension over how America should pursue its space aspirations. NASA has spent more than $40 billion so far to get Artemis off Earth. The expense illustrates how the space program continues to resemble the way the Pentagon builds aircraft carriers and F-35 fighters — expensive and slow, but controlled primarily by the federal government because there is not yet a commercial market for the types of missiles that are large and deep. Space transportation that NASA considers essential to the lunar exploration program.
alternative approach, where NASA will be a customer or passenger on a commercial spacecraftIt could be cheaper and faster, drawing on innovative spacecraft built by groundbreaking companies like SpaceX, led by Elon Musk.
“If you’re serious about going back to the moon, you’re going to do whatever you can with commercial approaches,” said Charles Miller, who worked at NASA from 2009 to 2012 as a senior advisor for commercial space activities.
But a commercial approach may not provide exactly what NASA and other government decision-makers want, and companies can often change plans or go out of business.
Although it may not have calmed the critics, the 322-foot-tall rocket known as the Space Launch System, or SLS, was an impressive sight on the launch pad. However, with a launch time in the middle of the night, the Florida Space Coast was not as crowded with spectators as it had been in previous launch attempts.
Wednesday’s launch attempt followed two failed launch attempts in August and September, one stalled by an engine that appeared to be too warm, and the other involving a hydrogen leak in a fuel line. Hurricane Ian pushed NASA to skip another launch window in late September and early October, and Hurricane Nicole led to a two-day delay before Wednesday’s launch.
The countdown continued smoothly until a hydrogen leak appeared in a new location at about 9:15 p.m., and a “red crew” of two technicians and a safety officer went to the launch pad to tighten the screws in the valve, stopping the leak.
A faulty ethernet switch also disrupted the countdown, cutting off data from the radar needed to track the missile. The US Space Force, which ensures the safety of rocket launches from the Kennedy Space Center, replaced the equipment and the countdown resumed.
A recent poll by Ms. Blackwell-Thompson confirmed that the rocket was ready to go into space.
At 1:47 a.m., the four engines in the rocket’s primary stage ignited, along with two skinnier side boosters. When the countdown reached zero, the clamps holding the rocket down let go, and the craft slid into the Earth’s bonds.
On takeoff, the flames from the engines were incredibly bright, like giant welding torches.
“I tell you, we have never seen such a tail of flame,” said Mr. Nelson.
As the rocket climbed, it let out a loud boom that rolled across the center of space.
After a few minutes, the side boosters separated and then the giant core stage. Then the rocket’s upper engine ignited to carry the Orion spacecraft, where the astronauts would sit during later missions, into orbit.
Less than two hours after launch, the upper stage fired one last time to send Orion on a trajectory toward the moon. On Monday, Orion will pass within about 60 miles of the lunar surface. After orbiting the Moon for two weeks, Orion will return to Earth, landing Dec. 11 in the Pacific Ocean, about 60 miles off the coast of California.
“We laid the foundation for the Artemis program and for many generations to come,” John Honeycutt, Space Launch System rocket program manager, 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. It is currently scheduled to land two astronauts near the moon’s south pole in 2025. , although that date is out of date. Very likely to slip further into the future.
in last year’s reportNASA’s inspector general estimated that by the time Artemis III returned from the Moon, NASA had spent $93 billion on the program and that each SLS and Orion launch would cost more than $4 billion. Cost overruns resulted in part from technical problems, mismanagement, and changing NASA plans and schedules. And like the old Saturn V, the expensive Space Launch System rocket is only used once before it falls into the ocean.
By streamlining manufacturing, “we’re hoping it could cost about $2 billion” per launch, Sharon Cobb, NASA’s associate program manager for the Space Launch System, said during an August interview.
by contrast, SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, although not as powerful as the SLS, it costs $90 million per launch. And the Starship from SpaceX, a giant next-generation rocket Currently under development and also central to NASA’s plans to land astronauts on the moon, it will be fully reusable, and Mr. Musk has said, perhaps overly optimistically, that a launch could ultimately cost less than $10 million.
For Artemis, NASA took a mix-and-match approach — a traditional rocket and crew capsule program, and a commercial strategy for the lunar lander. NASA is buying from SpaceX, for a fixed price, a flight of Starship to serve as the probe for the Artemis III mission later this decade. The spacecraft will dock with Orion in lunar orbit and take astronauts to the surface near the lunar south pole.
Delays and cost overruns with the SLS and Orion highlight shortcomings in how NASA manages its programs, but Mr. Musk’s company, for all its impressive technological leaps thus far, is also not guaranteed to solve all of the spacecraft’s development challenges as quickly as he might hope. Mr. Musk.
His company achieved stunning success with its Falcon 9 rocket, after investing NASA to fly cargo and later astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The shipping contract provided a major splash of money for Mr. Musk’s company, granting approval from NASA when SpaceX was still largely unknown and unproven. It now dominates the satellite launch business.
For NASA, this was a huge win, too. Since NASA is just one of SpaceX’s many customers, SpaceX can offer much lower costs.
However, these successes do not guarantee that Starship will be successful either. If SpaceX falters, NASA’s gamble on the company’s new spacecraft risks letting the United States waste its investment while it still waits for the moon landing of Artemis III.
The sprawling expense of Artemis may be the cost of maintaining political support for the space program in a federal democracy, said Casey Dreyer, senior policy adviser to the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes space exploration. Even if Artemis’ design isn’t the best or most efficient design, he said, it provides jobs for NASA employees and aerospace companies across the country. This provides continued political support for the Moon programme.
“Congress has done nothing but add more money to Artemis every year it has been around,” said Mr. Dreyer.
So far, politicians have faced little or no public outrage when voting to fund Artemis’ missions. Even if it saved NASA money, the commercial approach could spark greater opposition, fueling the perception that the agency has outsourced its space program to billionaires like Mr. Musk. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon who founded the rocket company Blue Origin; and Richard Branson, which Virgin Galactic takes tourists on short subtropical flights.
Consider the anger of many people towards Mr. Bezos and Mr. Branson last year when they made Suborbital flights into space Which companies built started with their fortunes. Mr. Branson and Mr. Bezos did not rely on federal funding to start their own space tourism business Calm the anger This space seems to turn into The playground of the rich.
Thus, the decision to turn to companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin could draw criticism NASA was only adding to the wealth of billionaires Who will one day escape from worldly troubles to private space stations and colonies outside the world.
“By aligning our space program with very famous and private individuals, that is probably my greatest political risk,” Mr. Dreyer said.
Defenders of commercial space argue that history does not support this wretched view. Instead, they point to the century-old entrepreneurs who transformed flying from a luxury available to only a few into a safe and affordable mode of transportation for almost everyone.
While proponents of private spaceflight believe their approach will prevail, no one in Congress has yet pushed to repeal SLS or Orion. The CHIPS and Science Act, which President Biden signed into lawcalls for NASA to include the rovers in its plans to send astronauts to Mars and directs the agency to launch the SLS at least once a year.
NASA is currently negotiating with rocket manufacturers for up to 20 more launches.
“I think the program itself is shaping up to be very politically sustainable,” Mr. Dreyer said. “I challenge people to show me public outrage over the SLS program and how it translates into political pressure to cancel it. And I just don’t see it.”
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