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NASA’s moon rocket launches 50 years after Apollo

Thousands watched from the launch site as Artemis program begins with unmanned mission around the moon.

A rocket lifts off at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Wednesday. This launch is the first flight test of the Artemis program. (John Raoux/AP)

NASA’s new moon rocket blasted off on its debut flight with three test dummies aboard early Wednesday, bringing the United States a big step closer to putting astronauts back on the lunar surface for the first time since the end of the Apollo program 50 years ago.

If all goes well during the three-week flight, the crew capsule will be sent into a wide orbit around the moon and then return to Earth with a Pacific splashdown in December.

After years of delays and a cost that was billions more than expected, the Space Launch System rocket thundered skyward, rising from Kennedy Space Center on 8.8 million pounds of thrust and hitting 100 miles per hour within seconds. The Orion capsule was perched on top and, less than two hours into the flight, busted out of Earth’s orbit toward the moon.

The launch follows nearly three months of delays from fuel leaks and hurricanes.

NASA’s Artemis I launch has faced several delays. That’s actually common.

An estimated 15,000 people jammed the launch site, with thousands more lining the beaches and roads outside the gates, to witness NASA’s long-awaited sequel to Project Apollo, when 12 astronauts walked on the moon from 1969 and 1972.

The liftoff marked the start of NASA’s Artemis lunar-exploration program, named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology. The space agency aims to send four astronauts around the moon on the next flight, in 2024, and land humans there as early as 2025.

The 322-foot Space Launch System is the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA, with more thrust than either the space shuttle or the mighty Saturn V that carried men to the moon.

Orion should reach the moon by Monday. After coming within 80 miles of it, the capsule will enter a far-flung orbit stretching about 40,000 miles beyond.

The $4.1 billion test flight is set to last 25 days, roughly the same as when crews will be aboard. The space agency intends to push the spacecraft to its limits and uncover any problems before astronauts strap in. The mannequins — NASA calls them moonequins — are fitted with sensors to measure such things as vibration, acceleration and cosmic radiation.

KidsPost looks at new era of American spaceflight

Most of NASA’s corps of 42 active astronauts and 10 trainees were not born when Apollo 17 moonwalkers Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out the era, 50 years ago next month.

“We are jumping out of our spacesuits with excitement,” astronaut Christina Koch said Tuesday.

After a nearly year-long space station mission and all-female spacewalk, Koch, 43, is on NASA’s shortlist for a lunar flight. So is astronaut Kayla Barron, 35, who finally got to witness her first rocket launch, not counting her own a year ago.

“It took my breath away, and I was tearing up,” Barron said. “What an amazing accomplishment for this team.”

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