NASA Launches Massive Artemis I Rocket in First Step Toward Return to Moon

NASA launched its most powerful rocket in 50 years early Wednesday, sending an uncrewed capsule skyward on a 25-day mission to orbit the moon and return safely to Earth.

NASA launched its most powerful rocket in 50 years early Wednesday, sending an uncrewed capsule skyward on a 25-day mission to orbit the moon and return safely to Earth.

The agency’s Space Launch System rocket, with an Orion capsule perched atop it, cleared its Kennedy Space Center launchpad on the Florida coast just after takeoff at 1:48 a.m. local time, its four main engines and twin solid boosters lighting up the night sky. 

The mission, called Artemis I, marks the inaugural flight of both the SLS rocket and the Orion crew capsule. And it kicks off NASA’s multi-mission Artemis program, which is focused on sending astronauts, including the first woman and the first person of color, back to the moon’s surface by as early as 2025.

The SLS, built by Boeing Co., is meant to be the primary vehicle that will be used to transport humans to the vicinity of the moon; the Orion crew capsule is built by Lockheed Martin Corp. With Wednesday’s launch, NASA intends to show that the combined SLS and Orion vehicles can safely do their jobs before astronauts ever climb aboard.

About eight minutes after liftoff, the SLS entered Earth orbit and the main core of the rocket separated from the upper portion of the vehicle carrying Orion. Roughly an hour-and-a-half after launch, the upper stage’s engine will ignite for 18 minutes to send Orion on course to the moon.

In six days, Orion will come within 60 miles (97 kilometers) of the lunar surface, using the moon’s gravity to enter an elongated orbit. Orion needs to demonstrate that it can get in and out of lunar orbit before returning home, surviving reentry in Earth’s atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11.

Wednesday’s launch was the third time in the last two months that NASA attempted to get this mission off the ground. The first try at the end of August was scrubbed after the start of the launch window following a night of weather delays, hydrogen leaks, and a bad reading from a temperature sensor on one of the main engines.

A second launch attempt in early September was also postponed after a hydrogen leak emerged during propellant loading. NASA replaced damaged hardware on the rocket before trying again. NASA had then hoped to try for a third attempt in late September, but opted to roll the spacecraft back to its main hangar to shelter it from approaching Hurricane Ian.

NASA rolled the rocket back out to its launchpad less than two weeks ago, just in time for another storm, Hurricane Nicole, to hit Florida. This time, NASA opted to leave the SLS rocket on its launchpad to weather the storm. The vehicle suffered little damage and NASA engineers deemed it ready to fly.

Still, NASA officials are quick to point out that Artemis I is first and foremost a practice run and much could still go awry. 

“Please understand, it’s a test flight,” Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator, said in an interview before the first launch attempt. “They stress it and test it in a way that you’d never do with humans on board. That’s the point of a test flight.”

Program Delays

Wednesday’s launch was more than a decade in the making. First conceived in 2010, the SLS was originally projected to launch as early as 2017. But with its development hitting snags and its budget ballooning, the rocket stayed on the ground. Development costs have soared from an original $7 billion to about $23 billion, according to an estimate by the Planetary Society. 

Concurrently, the Orion crew-capsule’s development suffered its own delays and cost overruns. Audits have highlighted flaws in Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s management of their respective projects, as well as testing and construction mishaps.

NASA has downplayed those earlier struggles. “We are developing new systems and new technologies,” Nelson said during a press conference ahead of the first launch attempt. “And it takes money and it takes time.”

Mission Elements

The plan is for Orion to stay in lunar orbit for a little less than a week. It’s carrying several payloads, including mannequins that will help test what it might be like for future riders traveling to deep space. It also holds a package called Callisto, which includes an Amazon Alexa and a touchscreen sporting Cisco’s Webex, to test out communication tools astronauts could use in deep space one day. 

The craft will also deploy several small satellites that will travel into deep space, testing technologies needed for navigation or studying the moon and its radiation environment. One of the small satellites is set to land on the moon.

If all goes according to plan, on Dec. 11 Orion will put its new heat shield to the test, enduring reentry temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit before the capsule splashes down off the coast of San Diego. The shield will have to perform flawlessly before Orion gets the green-light to carry astronauts.

“The main objective is to test the heat shield and you can’t test that in a lab,” Nelson said in an interview. “You have to test this new heat shield and it’s coming in hot and fast.”

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