Artemis I mission launches in historic leap forward for NASA’s lunar program

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The historic Artemis I mission took off in the early hours of Wednesday morning after months of anticipation. The landmark event kicked off 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, 98-foot Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket fired up its engines at 1:47 a.m. ET. It exuded up to 9 million pounds (4.1 million kilograms) of thrust to drag itself off the launch pad in Florida and into the sky, vibrant across the night sky.

On top of the rocket was the Orion spacecraft, a gumdrop-shaped capsule that broke free from the rocket after reaching space. Orion was designed to carry humans, but the passengers for this test mission are the inanimate kind, including some mannequins who collect vital data to aid future live crews.

The SLS rocket consumed millions of pounds of fuel before parts of the rocket began to break free, and Orion now floats through orbit with only one large engine. That engine will inflict two powerful burns in the next few hours to get the spacecraft on the correct orbit to the moon. Then, about two hours after launch, the rocket motor will also fail and Orion will be free to fly for the rest of its journey.

Orion is expected to log about 1.3 million miles (2 million kilometers), following a path that will take it farther than any other spacecraft designed for human flight, NASA said. After orbiting the moon, Orion will make its return journey, completing its journey in about 25.5 days. The capsule will then crash into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego on Dec. 11, when recovery teams will be waiting nearby to bring it to safety.

Throughout the mission, NASA engineers will closely monitor the spacecraft’s performance. The team will evaluate whether Orion is performing as intended and will be ready to support its first manned 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’s orbit, with 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rocket that powered NASA’s lunar landings in the 20th century.

The NASA Space Launch System rocket is seen Nov. 15 as Artemis I teams load propellants during a launch countdown at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.

And this mission is just the first in what is expected to be a long line of 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, scheduled for later this decade, is expected to land a woman and a person of color on the lunar surface for the first time.

Read more: The sheer numbers that make the Artemis I mission a monumental achievement

The mission team experienced a number of setbacks leading up to Wednesday morning’s launch, including technical problems with the megamoon rocket and two hurricanes that swept over the launch site.

Refueling the SLS rocket with supercooled liquid hydrogen turned out to be a major issue that forced NASA to call off previous launch attempts, but on Tuesday the tanks were filled despite leak problems that halted refueling hours before launch.

To address that problem, NASA deployed what it calls a “red crew” — a group of personnel specially trained to make repairs while the rocket is being loaded with propellant. They tightened some nuts and bolts to stop the fuel leak.

“The rocket, it’s alive, it cracks, it makes air noises — it’s pretty scary. So… my heart was beating. I was nervous, but yes, we showed up today. When we walked up the stairs. We were ready to rock and roll,” Trent Annis, a red crew member, said in an interview on NASA TV after launch.

Other NASA personnel in the launch site fire room, where agency officials make crucial decisions in the hours and moments before launch, celebrated a victory.

“Well, for once I might be speechless,” said Artemis I launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the first woman to hold 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 shooting room. “And we worked hard as a team. You have worked hard as a team so far. This is your moment.”

Blackwell-Thompson then declared it was time for the tiebreak, a NASA tradition in which launch operators cut the ends of their business ties. Blackwell-Thompson’s was stopped by Mike Leinbach, shuttle launch director, and she promised the others in the room, “I’ll stay all night if I have to.” It will be my pleasure to cut ties.”

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