US successfully launches first moon landing mission in decades

(NewsNation) — The U.S. is headed back to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years. NASA and the United Launch Alliance launched its first-ever Vulcan rocket Monday morning, sending a private lunar lander into space.

Astrobotic Technology’s lander caught a ride on a brand new rocket, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan. The Vulcan streaked through the Florida predawn sky, putting the spacecraft on a roundabout route to the moon that should culminate with an attempted landing on Feb. 23.

“So, so, so excited. We are on our way to the moon!” Astrobotic chief executive John Thornton said.

If successful, this will be the first private mission to touch the moon’s soil.

“First to launch. First to land is TBD,” Thornton noted.

The spacecraft — the Peregrine Lunar Lander — is the next step toward putting Americans back on the moon.

“I’m excited. I mean, the fact that the U.S. and it’s a commercial entity is going to send something up to the surface of the moon for the first time in more than five decades. I mean, this officially announces to the world that the U.S. is back in business to go to the moon,” retired NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez said. “It’s a bright future for space exploration.”

The last time the U.S. launched a moon landing mission was in December 1972. Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt became the 11th and 12th men to walk on the moon, closing out an era that has remained NASA’s pinnacle.

The space agency’s new Artemis program — named after the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology — looks to return astronauts to the moon’s surface within the next few years. First will be a lunar fly-around with four astronauts, possibly before the end of the year.

Astrobotic was the American aerospace company tasked with building the lunar lander. The company has been working to carry out six experiments for NASA, plus a dozen other payloads to the moon for paying customers. That includes transporting authenticated DNA in capsules from three American presidents —George Washington, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy — into deep space.

The remains of famed Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and a few other prominent original Star Trek cast members also hitched a ride into orbit as part of the Celestis Memorial Spaceflight.

“We thought, ‘How cool would it be to have three U.S. presidents onboard with the original cast of Star Trek, NASA astronauts and eminent scientists,’” CEO and co-founder of Celestis, Charles Chafer, said.

Once released, the CEO said those capsules are expected to orbit the sun forever.

The Associate Press contributed to this report.

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