NASA’s most powerful rocket to ever launch has sent a spacecraft soaring toward the moon, beginning a new age of space exploration.
The 32-story Space Launch System (SLS) lifted off at 1:47 a.m. Eastern time. A massive flame burned through the darkness in Cape Canaveral, Florida, propelling the rocket away from Earth. With the successful launch, all systems are go for the Artemis 1 mission, the first major part of NASA’s new lunar program that aims to one day put people back on the moon.
After the rocket’s side boosters and big orange core stage separated, the upper stage moved the Orion spacecraft, the vehicle meant to later carry astronauts, through a series of maneuvers in Earth’s orbit. Nearly two hours after launch, the upper stage engines gave Orion one final push toward its destination. The uncrewed capsule will orbit the moon, passing within 60 miles of the lunar surface on Monday, then splash down in the Pacific Ocean on December 11, reports the New York Times’ Kenneth Chang.
“We’ve laid the foundation for the Artemis program and many generations to come,” John Honeycutt, NASA’s program manager of the SLS rocket, said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “The rocket performed outstandingly.”
Named for the twin of the Greek god Apollo, Artemis is the modern counterpart of the Apollo program of the 1960s and ’70s. If all goes according to plan, the Artemis 3 mission (slated for 2025, but likely to change) will achieve a human moon landing for the first time since 1972—bringing the first woman and first person of color to the lunar surface and laying the groundwork for future human trips to Mars.
The uncrewed Artemis 1 flight is meant to be a test run to ensure NASA’s equipment is safe for future human occupants. For the time being, the capsule hosts three mannequins that will monitor how space radiation affects the body. Two of these are specifically designed to represent a woman’s body and will provide crucial data as NASA prepares to send the first female astronaut to the moon. But the mission’s biggest test will come at the end: As Orion reenters Earth’s atmosphere, NASA will monitor how the heat shield holds up. This is what will protect human occupants from the scorching temperatures created when a spacecraft tears through the atmosphere.
“This is just the test flight,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at the press conference. “We are stressing it and testing it in ways that we will not do to a rocket that has a human crew on it. But that’s the purpose: to make it as safe as possible, as reliable as possible, for when our astronauts crawl on board and go back to the moon.”
For several perilous moments Tuesday night, it looked like the launch might not happen: Around 9:30 p.m., the rocket’s core stage began to intermittently leak hydrogen. Hydrogen leaks had plagued the mission’s test runs and launch attempts earlier this year. To resolve this, NASA called in a “red team” of professionals trained to make repairs once propellant has been loaded into the rocket, and they tightened nuts and bolts to stop the leak.
The mishap provided an unintentional callback to the Apollo 11 launch of 1969, the mission on which Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon. NASA faced a similar leak at the time and had to deploy a team of technicians to the launch pad to tighten bolts.
The space agency hasn’t had an easy time getting the powerful SLS rocket ready for launch. The rocket failed three wet dress rehearsals, or test runs, in April due to various issues including a faulty vent valve and a hydrogen leak. In June, NASA conducted a fourth wet dress rehearsal and called it a success, despite another leak that held up part of the test. Then, the rocket’s launch slid backward from the original August date to September, October and, finally, November, as technical issues and storms bested NASA’s plans.
When Hurricane Nicole hit Florida last week, the multibillion-dollar SLS was out in the elements, sitting on the launch pad. The rocket and the Orion spacecraft sustained some minor damage: A ten-foot strip of caulk on the crew capsule was lost. NASA engineers decided it was okay to go ahead with the launch but pushed it back by two days.
Beyond the equipment, the launch of Artemis 1 was a test of NASA’s team, too, as Artemis launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson said at the press conference. She described the teams’ work as “flawless” and “seamless.”
Blackwell-Thompson is NASA’s first-ever female launch director, and about 30 percent of the launch control team consists of women. “In the case of the Apollo 11 launch, we had one woman in the firing room of 450 men,” she tells Mashable’s Elisha Sauers. “One.”
At the press conference, Blackwell-Thompson pointed out that the diversity of people who have had the opportunity to contribute to the Artemis program is greater than it was in the nation’s last moon program. “I think that’s a point of pride,” she said.