The Artemis I mission launched in a historic leap forward for NASA’s lunar program

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. This milestone event began the journey that would 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 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 lift itself from the launch pad in Florida into the air, streaking across the night sky.

On top of the rocket was the Orion spacecraft, a rubber-shaped capsule that separated from the rocket after reaching space. Orion is designed to carry humans, but its passengers for this test mission are non-living species, including some mannequins that collect vital data to aid future living crews.

The SLS rocket consumed millions of pounds of fuel before parts of the rocket began to separate, and Orion now flies through orbit with only one large engine. That engine will release two powerful burns in the next few hours to place the spacecraft on the correct trajectory towards the Moon. Then, about two hours after liftoff, the rocket motor will also fail, and Orion will be left to fly freely for the rest of its journey.

Orion is expected to travel approximately 1.3 million miles (2 million kilometers), following a path that will take it further than any other spacecraft designed for human flight, according to NASA. After orbiting the Moon, Orion will return, completing its journey in about 25.5 days. The capsule is then scheduled to splash down in 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 performing as intended and will be ready to support its first manned mission to lunar orbit, currently scheduled for 2024.

The mission also marks the debut flight of the SLS rocket as the most powerful ever to reach Earth orbit, with 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rocket that powered NASA’s 20th century moon landings.

And this mission is only the first in what is expected to be a long one increasingly difficult Artemis missions while NASA works towards 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.

Read more: The big numbers that make the Artemis I mission a monumental feat

The mission team encountered a series of setbacks ahead of Wednesday morning’s launch, including technical problems with the mega rocket to the moon and two hurricanes rolling through the launch site.

Filling the SLS rocket with supercooled liquid hydrogen proved to be one of the main problems that forced NASA to abandon earlier launch attempts, but on Tuesday the tanks were filled despite the leakage problems which stopped refueling hours before launch.

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

“The rocket, it’s alive, it’s screeching, it’s making noises – it’s pretty scary. So… my heart was racing. My nerves got the better of me, but, yes, we showed up today. When we went up the stairs. We were ready to rock and roll,” said red crew member Trent Annis in an interview with NASA TV after the launch.

Other NASA personnel in the launch site firing room, where agency officials make key decisions in the hours and moments before liftoff, celebrated the 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 to the engineers in the firing room. “And we worked hard as a team. You have worked hard as a team up to this point. This is your moment.”

Blackwell-Thompson then declared that it was time to cut the tie, a NASA tradition in which launch operators cut the ends of their business ties. Blackwell-Thompson’s 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.”

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