The night sky turned bright as day as Artemis I rose on a pillar of fire, and the deafening roar reached observers just seconds later, as 8.8 million pounds of thrust were unleashed. The launch was a spectacle for viewers near the Kennedy Space Center.
Slinging the first human-rated spacecraft to the moon for the first time since 1972, the highly anticipated Space Launch System launch began in the early hours of Nov. 16, setting the stage for a test flight lasting just over 25 days.
“What an incredible sight to see NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft launch together for the first time,” Bill Nelson, NASA administrator, said in a press release following the launch.
The Artemis I launch marked the first flight of SLS, now the most powerful rocket in the world, according to NASA.
After launch at 1:47 a.m. EST, the initial ascent and flight were successful, proving the new rocket before carrying NASA astronauts on its next flight, according to the agency.
The SLS rocket was tasked with propelling the Lockheed Martin-built Orion human-rated spacecraft to the moon. The last time such a spacecraft left low-Earth orbit was Apollo 17, the most recent human lunar landing.
“It’s taken a lot to get here, but Orion is now on its way to the Moon,” Jim Free, NASA deputy associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, said.
“This successful launch means NASA and our partners are on a path to explore farther in space than ever before for the benefit of humanity,” Free said.
On Nov. 25, the Orion spacecraft entered a distant lunar retrograde orbit, according to NASA. This particular orbit is ideal for a shakedown of the lunar spacecraft.
“Artemis I is a true stress test of the Orion spacecraft in the deep space environment,” Mike Sarafin, Artemis mission manager at NASA, said. “Without crew aboard the first mission, DRO allows Orion to spend more time in deep space for a rigorous mission to ensure spacecraft systems, like guidance, navigation, communication, power, thermal control and others are ready to keep astronauts safe on future crewed missions.”
The Orion spacecraft is expected to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11, concluding the Artemis I mission.
The successful conclusion of Artemis I sets the stage for Artemis II, currently planned for 2024, according to the space agency.
Artemis II will send four astronauts to orbit around the moon on the Orion spacecraft, the first time humans have left low-Earth orbit in over 50 years. Like Artemis I, the monumental flight will also initially launch on the SLS rocket from the Kennedy Space Center.
Progress remains steadfast on Artemis II, with the United Launch Alliance-built upper stage already delivered to the launch site. On the first stage, two of the four main engines have already flown Space Shuttle missions, according to an infographic posted by NASA. One of these missions included the final Space Shuttle launch in 2011.
Artemis II will be the spiritual successor of the Apollo 8 mission, where humans left low-Earth orbit and voyaged to the moon for the first time. Over 50 years later, Artemis II will do the same, kicking off humanity’s return to the moon in this century.
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