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The historic Artemis I mission began its journey in the early hours of Wednesday morning after months of anticipation. The milestone 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 322-foot (98-meter) tall Space Launch System rocket ignited its engines at 1:47 a.m. ET. It fired up to 9 million pounds (4.1 million kilograms) of thrust to pull itself off the launch pad in Florida and into the air, twinkling vibrantly across the night sky.
Above the rocket was the Orion spacecraft, a gumdrop-shaped capsule that had separated from the rocket after reaching space. Orion was designed to carry humans, but its passengers on this test mission are of the non-living species, including some mannequins that collect vital data to help future live crews.
The SLS rocket expended millions of pounds of fuel before parts of the rocket began to fail, and Orion was left to orbit with just one large engine. This engine then fired two powerful burns to put the spacecraft on the correct trajectory toward the Moon. Then, about two hours after liftoff, the rocket’s engine fell away, leaving Orion to fly freely for the remainder of its flight.
Orion is expected to travel nearly 1.3 million miles (2 million km), taking a course that will take it farther than any other spacecraft designed for human flight, According to NASA. After orbiting the Moon, Orion will make its return trip, 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, where recovery teams are waiting nearby to ferry it to safety.
Throughout the mission, NASA engineers will closely monitor the spacecraft’s performance. The team will assess whether Orion is functioning as intended and will be ready to support its first manned mission to lunar orbit, currently scheduled for 2024.
The mission also marks the first flight of the SLS rocket as the most powerful rocket ever to reach Earth orbit, boasting 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rocket that landed NASA on the moon in the 20th century.
This mission is only the first in what is expected to be a long series of missions Artemis’ tasks are getting more and more difficult NASA is working towards its goal of establishing a permanent outpost on the moon. Artemis II will follow a similar path to Artemis I but will have two astronauts on board. Artemis III, due for release later this decade, is expected to land a woman and a person of color on the moon for the first time.
Read more: The big numbers that make the Artemis I mission a monumental feat
The mission team faced a number of setbacks in the run-up to launch on Wednesday morning, including technical issues with the giant moon rocket and two tornadoes that traversed the launch site.
Supplying the SLS rocket with supercold liquid hydrogen proved to be one of the major problems that forced NASA to scrap previous takeoff attempts, but on Tuesday, the tanks filled up. Despite the leakage issues which stopped refueling hours before launch.
To address this problem, NASA has deployed what it calls a “red crew”—a group of specially trained personnel to perform repairs while the rocket is fueled. They tightened some nuts and bolts to prevent fuel leakage.
“The missile, it’s alive, it’s squeaking, it’s making breath-taking sounds—it’s so scary. So…my heart was pumping. My nerves were racing but, yeah, we showed up today. When we came up the stairs. Red crew member Trent Ennis said in Interview on NASA TV after the launch: “We were ready to rock and roll.”
Other NASA employees in the launch site’s firing room, where agency officials make critical decisions in the hours and moments leading up to liftoff, celebrated victory.
“Well for once I might be speechless,” said Artemis, who fired director Charlie Blackwell Thompson, the first woman to fill such a role.
“I talked a lot about appreciating the moment you’re in,” Blackwell-Thompson said in remarks to the engineers in the firing room. “And we’ve worked hard as a team. You guys have worked hard as a team up until this point. This is your moment.”
Then Blackwell-Thompson announced that it was time to cut ties, a NASA tradition in which launch operators cut the ends of their business ties. Blackwell-Thompson was snapped by shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach, and she vowed to the others in the room, “I’ll stay all night if I have to. I’d be happy to cut ties.”
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