The first U.S. moon landing mission in decades launched with NASA science, humans aboard

(CNN) — A mighty new rocket has lifted off, carrying the first commercial lander to land on the moon and the first lunar landing mission launched from the United States since 1972.

The Vulcan Centaur rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, lifted off at 2:18 a.m. Monday at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The launch vehicle heads into space, burning through its fuel as it tries to break away from Earth's gravity and sends a lunar lander called Peregrine stealthily on its way to the moon.

Around 3 a.m. ET, the Peregrine spacecraft is expected to separate from the rocket and begin its slow journey toward the lunar surface. If all goes according to plan, the moon landing will take place on February 23.

What's on the board?

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology, under contract with NASA, developed the Peregrine lander, named after the world's fastest bird, the falcon.

The space agency paid Astrobotic $108 million to build Peregrine and bring NASA science experiments to the lunar surface.

But the space agency is just one of many customers for this mission.

Five of the 20 payloads Peregrine will carry to the moon are NASA science instruments. The other 15 are from various clients.

Some include additional scientific payloads from countries like Mexico, others robotics experiments by a private company based in the United Kingdom, and trinkets or souvenirs collected by German shipping giant DHL.

Peregrine also transports human remains on behalf of two commercial space burial companies, Elysium Space and Celestis, prompting a move. Navajo Nation Resistance , the largest group of Native Americans in the United States. The group says allowing remains to land on the moon's surface would be an affront to many indigenous cultures that consider the moon sacred. According to the company's website, Celestis is offering to carry ash to the moon for more than $10,000.

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The five NASA-sponsored experiments include two instruments for monitoring the radiation environment, “helping us better prepare for a crewed mission to the Moon,” said Paul Niles, NASA program scientist for the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. Peregrine offered the funds during a press conference Thursday. Other instruments will analyze the composition of the lunar soil. Looking for water and hydroxyl molecules . NASA will also study the Moon's thin atmosphere.

Once on the lunar surface, Peregrine is expected to operate for up to 10 days before its landing pad is plunged into darkness, too cold to continue.

The Vulcan Centaur rocket, packaged separately from the Peregrine lander, contains another payload from the space burial agency Celestis.

In the mission named Enterprise Flight, 265 capsules containing human remains and former US Presidents John F. There will be DNA samples from Kennedy, George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower.

According to the site's website, the survivors include “creators and many actors from the original Star Trek television series, as well as Apollo-era astronauts, from all walks of life, interests and professions.”

An Apollo astronaut found aboard the Enterprise Philip Chapman Selected for astronautship in 1967 but never flew into space. Died in 2021.

A new rocket

The excitement of the upcoming moon landing effort aside, the launch of ULA's Vulcan Centaur rocket was an event.

This rocket is one of the most anticipated new launch vehicles in years. If the rocket mission is successful, it will be a game changer for ULA and the rocket industry.

ULA was created in 2006 in response to the US military's need to operate Boeing's Delta and Lockheed Martin Atlas rockets. But the launch industry looks very different today than it did nearly two decades ago, and meanwhile SpaceX has become a dominant force driving down ULA prices.

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ULA and its CEO Tory Bruno envision the Vulcan Centaur replacing its Atlas and Delta rockets. According to Bruno, the Vulcan Centaur already has about 70 missions planned.

ULA has an unblemished launch record, with almost no failed missions. The Vulcan Centaur builds on the success of ULA's Atlas rockets by using essentially the same upper stage: the part of the rocket that propels the spacecraft to orbital velocity after initial liftoff.

But a major change was made to the rocket's first stage, the lower part that delivers the initial burst of energy from the launch pad.

The Vulcan Centaur will be powered by two side boosters and two American-made rocket engines, Jeff Bezos-backed company Blue Origin, based on its first-stage booster, will replace the Russian-made engines that power the Atlas. Rockets. . ULA's reliance on Russian engines has become politically unpopular as tensions between the U.S. and Russia have escalated in recent years.

Vulcan Centaur's launch was several years behind schedule, although beating deadlines is common in the space industry.

ULA faced long delays for the new Blue Origin engines. And a Vulcan Centaur upper stage was inadvertently destroyed during a test stand last year.

Despite those setbacks, Bruno said in November that Vulcan Centaur's development was “one of the most orderly and well-executed development projects I've worked on in my long career in space.”

Within minutes of liftoff, the rocket appeared to be working as planned.

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