The Artemis I mission launched in a historic leap forward for NASA’s lunar program
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The historic Artemis I mission lifted off in the early hours of Wednesday morning after months of anticipation. The milestone marked the beginning of a journey that will send an unmanned spacecraft around the moon, paving the way for NASA to return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time in half a century.
The towering, 322-foot-tall (98-meter) Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket fired its engines at 1:47 a.m. ET. It emitted up to 9 million pounds (4.1 million kilograms) of thrust to blast off the Florida launch pad and into the air, streaking vibrantly across the night sky.
Atop the rocket was the Orion spacecraft, a bubblegum-shaped capsule that separated from the rocket after reaching space. Orion is designed to carry humans, but its passengers for this test mission are of the inanimate variety, including some dummies collecting vital data to aid future live crews.
The SLS rocket consumed millions of pounds of fuel before parts of the rocket began to separate, and Orion was left to float in orbit with only one large engine. This engine then fires two powerful burns to put the spacecraft on the correct trajectory to the Moon. Then, about two hours after liftoff, the rocket engine also fell, leaving Orion to fly freely for the rest of its journey.
Orion is expected to log approximately 1.3 million miles (2 million kilometers), embarking on a path that will take it farther than any other spacecraft designed for human flight has traveled. according to NASA. After orbiting the Moon, Orion will make its return trip, completing its journey in about 25.5 days. The capsule is then scheduled to crash into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego on December 11, when recovery teams will be waiting nearby to tow it to safety.
During the mission, NASA engineers will closely monitor the spacecraft’s performance. The team will assess whether Orion is working as intended and will be ready to support its first crewed mission to lunar orbit, currently scheduled for 2024.
This mission also marks the debut flight of the SLS rocket as the most powerful ever to reach Earth orbit, boasting 15 percent more thrust than the Saturn V rocket that powered NASA’s moon landings in the 20th century.
And this mission is just the first in what is expected to be a long series increasingly difficult Artemis missions as NASA works toward its goal of establishing a permanent outpost on the Moon. Artemis II will follow a similar path to Artemis I, but will have astronauts on board. Artemis III, planned for later this decade, is expected to land a woman and a person of color on the lunar surface for the first time.
The mission team encountered a number of setbacks in the run-up to Wednesday morning’s launch, including technical problems with the mega-moon rocket and two hurricanes passing through the launch site.
Fueling the SLS rocket with supercooled liquid hydrogen proved to be a major problem that forced NASA to abandon earlier liftoff attempts, but on Tuesday the tanks were refilled despite the leak issues which stopped loading hours before launch.
To deal with this problem, NASA has deployed what it calls a “red crew,” a group of personnel specially trained to perform repairs while the rocket is fueled. They tightened some nuts and bolts to stop the fuel leaks.
“The rocket, it’s alive, it’s screeching, it’s making noises — it’s pretty scary. So…my heart was pounding. My nerves held, but yes, we showed up today. When we went up the stairs. We were ready to rock and roll,” Red crew member Trent Annis said in an interview with NASA TV after the launch.
Other NASA personnel in the launch pad, where agency officials make critical decisions in the hours and moments before liftoff, celebrated a victory.
“Well, at least for once I can be speechless,” said Artemis I director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the first woman in such a role.
“I’ve talked a lot about appreciating the moment you’re in,” Blackwell-Thompson said in remarks to the engineers in the firing room. “And we worked hard as a team. You guys have worked hard as a team up until this point. This is your moment.”
Blackwell-Thompson then announced it was time for a tie-cutting, a NASA tradition in which launch operators cut the ends of their business ties. Blackwell-Thompson was interrupted by shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach, and she promised others in the room, “I’ll stay all night if I have to. It will be my pleasure to cut ties.”