Artemis I: NASA’s SLS successfully soars into orbit and towards the moon

“We rise together, back to the Moon and beyond.”
Chris Young
The liftoff that took place at 1.47am ET (0647 UTC).
The liftoff of SLS at 1.47 a.m. ET (0647 UTC).

NASA 

"Artemis Generation, this is for you."

NASA has finally lifted its Space Launch System (SLS) to orbit for its long-delayed uncrewed Artemis I mission.

The 322-foot-tall (98 m) rocket lit its engines and took flight at 1:47 am ET (0647 UTC), on Wednesday, November 16, emitting up to 9.5 million pounds of thrust (4.1 million kilograms) as it took off the launch pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ushering in a new era of space exploration.

During Artemis 1, NASA's SLS will send Orion's spacecraft on a 25-day journey of 40,000 miles (64,000 km) beyond the Moon before returning to Earth.

NASA's giant rocket makes history

It is the first mission in NASA's Artemis program, which was designed to eventually send the first astronauts back to the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972.

That mission, Artemis III, will send the first woman and first person of color to the lunar surface. It is currently slated for a 2025 launch date, though that is largely dependent on the outcome of today’s mission.

The primary goal of Artemis I is to rigorously test the program's integrated mission systems by "operating the spacecraft in a deep space environment, testing Orion’s heat shield, and recovering the crew module after reentry, descent, and splashdown", according to NASA.

"Liftoff of Artemis 1!" NASA commentator Derrol Nail said during the launch webcast, which can be watched in its entirety below. "We rise together, back to the moon and beyond."

Shortly after launch, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson explained in a media briefing that "this is just the test flight. We are stressing [SLS] and testing it in ways that we will not do to a rocket for humans,” before adding that the U.S. space agency is working to “make it as safe as possible for when astronauts crawl onboard and go back to the moon."

"From what we’ve seen tonight, it’s an A plus," Nelson continued.

NASA's first steps toward returning to the Moon

A few minutes after launch, the Space Launch System core stage main engine cutoff was complete, and the core stage separated from the interim cryogenic propulsion stage and Orion spacecraft.

Approximately 18 minutes into launch, Orion's solar arrays were deployed, eventually allowing the spacecraft to power itself. Early data suggested that the arrays were drawing power with good performance. Shortly afterwards, NASA announced that Orion had successfully separated from SLS. "Orion, we are passing the baton to you," the space agency wrote on Twitter.

NASA also stated that once Orion is a safe distance from the SLS upper stage, the upper stage "will perform its second job." It will begin releasing the 10 CubeSats that also hitched a ride to orbit, including NEA Scout, which will use a solar sail to travel to a nearby asteroid.

Roughly 87 minutes after Artemis I took to the skies, the SLS's interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) carried out an 18-minute engine burn, boosting Orion's speed from 17,500 mph (28,160 kph) to 22,500 mph (36,210 kph), and setting it on its course to the Moon.

"Trans-lunar injection burn complete! Orion is on its way to the moon! Thanks to ICPS, SLS's upper stage, for the push to get us on our way," Jim Free, associate administrator of the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate wrote on Twitter shortly afterward.

If all goes to plan, 13 days from now, the Artemis I mission will break a record when Orion beats Apollo 13's farthest distance traveled for a spacecraft built for humans. The 25-day mission will travel around the Moon and back, culminating in a Pacific Ocean splashdown on December 11.

A bittersweet moment for space enthusiasts?

Though today's launch is worthy of celebration, it's worth noting the SLS program has been criticized for going wildly over budget — the operational costs for a single Artemis launch currently total $4.1 billion — and the rocket has faced numerous delays on the road to the launch pad, with former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver recently telling IE the SLS is "not progress."

Still, this is a historic moment for space exploration, and a number of space experts have also expressed excitement in interviews with IE, with Neil deGrasse Tyson having stated that now, "the Moon, Mars, and beyond are all destinations."

Artemis I marks the first launch of NASA's SLS rocket, the space agency’s most powerful rocket to date, which is partly made of components from the Space Shuttle program. The wider Artemis program, meanwhile, was designed to help NASA not only send astronauts back to the Moon, but also establish a permanent lunar presence via its lunar Gateway orbital station.

That station will be located in a stable orbit — currently being tested by NASA's CAPSTONE mission — that will serve as a springboard for launching missions further into space. As such, the Artemis program is seen as a stepping stone for the eventual human exploration of Mars and even other parts of our Solar System.

Third time is the charm for SLS

As with previous SLS launch attempts, the road to today's launch wasn't all smooth sailing.

An intermittent leak was detected in the liquid hydrogen replenishment valve on Artemis 1's mobile launch tower during the SLS upper-stage fueling process three hours before launch. NASA had to send a "Red Crew" to the tower to stop the leak, which took almost an hour.

Later, another issue with an ethernet switch brought about further troubles. The issue was fixed while the launch countdown was at T-10 minutes hold. SLS finally hit the skies after all fixes were successfully carried out, but spectators likely feared another scrub was on the cards.

NASA's Artemis I launch was originally scheduled to take off on August 29, but that launch attempt was scrubbed due to problems that came to light with SLS’s RS-25 engine number 3 during tanking operations. Another scrub on the launch pad as well as delays caused by hurricane weather pushed the historic launch back to today.

Minutes into the launch, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, who made history as NASA's first female launch director, addressed her team at mission control.

"This is your moment. We are all part of something incredibly special: The first launch of Artemis, the first step in returning our country to the Moon and on to Mars," she said. "What you have done today will inspire generations to come."

This was a breaking news story, and it was updated as new information emerged.

This article was co-authored by Deena Theresa and Chris Young.

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