A US rocket capable of powering astronauts to the Moon — the first such mission in half a century — blasted off on its maiden voyage on Wednesday morning, opening a new chapter in American space exploration and intensifying a race with China.
The launch, at 1.48am from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, came after two previous attempts were called off in August and September because of leaking hydrogen fuel lines.
Nasa reported another leaking valve in a fuel line less than three hours before Wednesday’s launch, though engineers were able to tighten it and stop the leak in time to meet a two-hour launch window.
Wednesday’s launch, the first of four planned missions in Nasa’s Artemis programme, sent the Orion space capsule to orbit the Moon before it splashes down in to the Pacific Ocean in 25 days.
The third Artemis mission, planned for 2025 at the earliest, is scheduled to take the first woman, as well as the first person of colour, to the Moon. Artemis is also intended to lay the groundwork for a more permanent American presence on the Moon, which will act as a launch pad for future missions to Mars.
The plans were set in motion during Donald Trump’s administration, after 12 years of indecision in Washington over the design of a crewed space programme to succeed the Apollo missions of the 1960s and early 1970s.
The decision to return to the Moon was prompted partly by worries that Beijing had started to lay claim to the international leadership in space held by the US since Apollo. China put its first robotic lander on the Moon nine years ago and has since proposed a joint lunar base with Russia that will also be open to other countries.
Washington hopes to use a permanent lunar presence to mine frozen water that can be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen, providing rocket fuel for future missions venturing further out into the solar system.