The long wait is over: at 1:48 am Eastern time, NASA’s powerful Space Launch System rocket and the Orion spacecraft launched toward a historic lunar flyby after years of delays and multiple false starts. The thunder of a NASA rocket could be heard at the launchpad where the shuttle and the Apollo missions launched into space as large crowds of fans watched at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The movable launcher, a ground structure, had supported the 212-foot rocket, which was made up of two white solid rocket boosters and an orange core stage. The rocket ascended above a blaze explosion as the boosters ignited. It then swiftly cleared the launch tower and started ascending through the atmosphere, leaving a flaming orange streak in its wake. NASA’s video commentator Derrol Nail yelled, “Liftoff for Artemis 1.” Together, we ascend all the way to the moon and beyond.
The SLS boosters ran out of fuel after two minutes and began to fall apart. The core stage rocket ran out of fuel eight minutes after liftoff and split as well. The service module, which is provided by the European Space Agency and serves as the spacecraft’s primary propulsion and power source, and the upper-stage rocket were still connected when the Orion capsule was left unmanned. Over 16,000 miles per hour, Orion continued on, and a short while later, it deployed its solar arrays.
If the mission goes according to plan, after about two hours, the capsule will separate from the SLS upper stage. As it drifts away, the upper stage will then disperse—in batches—10 small spacecraft known as CubeSats, sending them out to conduct mini missions around the moon, Mars, and a near-Earth asteroid.
Meanwhile, Orion will fly on, taking about 10 days to reach the moon, where it will spend a couple of weeks in what’s called a “distant retrograde orbit,” which balances the gravitational pull of the Earth and moon and doesn’t take much fuel to maintain. While circling the moon, it will take images of the Earth and its satellite—including one like the iconic “Earthrise” photo taken on the Apollo 8 mission—and collect space radiation data so that scientists can learn more about potential health risks for astronauts on extended trips beyond the Earth’s protective atmosphere.
At the end of November, Orion will leave that orbit and cruise 40,000 miles beyond the moon—the farthest a spacecraft capable of carrying humans has ever traveled—before slingshotting back past it en route to Earth in early December. Its 26-day trip will end when it splashes down under parachutes into Pacific Ocean waters about 50 miles off the coast of San Diego, probably on December 11.
Members of the Artemis mission team are ecstatic that this moment has arrived—and also anxious about the first major moonshot since the Apollo era. “I’m excited to kick off this Artemis mission series to go back to the moon and basically start a new era that will represent deeper space exploration, and on to Mars one day. I’m most excited to watch that rocket turn night into day tonight when it takes off. It’s going to be spectacular,” said NASA astronaut Christina Koch, speaking earlier Tuesday before the launch. There will be many scientific, economic, and other benefits to the Artemis program, she says, thanks to NASA’s international and commercial partnerships, and it will help inspire the next generation of space explorers.
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