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The historic Artemis I mission took off early Wednesday morning after months of anticipation. The landmark event launched a mission to 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 tall, 322-foot-tall (98-meter-tall) Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket fired its engines at 1:47 a.m. ET. It pulled itself from the launch pad in Florida, exerting up to 9 million pounds (4.1 million kilograms) of thrust, and soared into the night sky.
On top of the rocket was the Orion spacecraft, a gumdrop-shaped capsule that separated from the rocket. After reaching space. Orion is designed to carry humans, but its passengers for this test mission are of the inanimate variety, with some mannequins collecting vital data to help future live crews.
The SLS spent millions of pounds of fuel before parts of the rocket began to break down, and Orion was left to soar into orbit with a massive engine. The engine then fired two powerful burns to put the spacecraft on course toward the Moon. Then, after about two hours, the rocket engine also dropped, leaving Orion to fly freely for the rest of its journey.
Orion is expected to travel about 1.3 million miles (2 million kilometers), making it the longest trajectory of any spacecraft designed for human flight. According to NASA. After orbiting the Moon, Orion will complete its journey in about 25.5 days and return. The capsule is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego on December 11, with rescue teams waiting nearby to pull it to safety.
Throughout the mission, NASA engineers will closely monitor the spacecraft’s performance. The team will evaluate whether Orion is performing as planned to support its first crewed mission to lunar orbit, scheduled for 2024.
The mission marks the first flight of the SLS rocket, the most powerful to reach Earth orbit, with 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rocket that powered NASA’s 20th-century moon landings.
This mission is the first in what is expected to be a long series Increasingly difficult Artemis missions NASA is working towards the goal of establishing a permanent outpost on the Moon. Artemis II will follow the same trajectory as Artemis I, but will have astronauts on board. Artemis III, scheduled for later this decade, is expected to land a woman and a person of color on the lunar surface for the first time.
The mission team faced several setbacks ahead of Wednesday morning’s launch, including technical problems with the Mega Moon rocket and two tornadoes that rolled through the launch pad.
Refueling the SLS rocket with supercooled liquid hydrogen proved to be a major problem, forcing NASA to abandon previous launch attempts, but on Tuesday, the tanks were filled. Despite the leakage issues It stopped fueling hours before launch.
To solve that problem, NASA used what it called a “red crew” — a group of workers specially trained to perform repairs while the propellant was loaded into the rocket. They tightened some nuts and bolts to prevent fuel leaks.
“Rocket, it’s alive, it’s whirring, the ventilation is making noise – it’s so scary. So… my heart was pounding. My nerves were going but, yeah, we showed up today. When we got up the stairs. We were ready to rock and roll, ” said Red Team member Trent Annis in an interview after the launch on NASA TV.
Other NASA personnel in the launch pad’s firing room, where agency officials make critical decisions in the hours and moments before a flight, celebrated the victory.
“For once I might not speak,” said Artemis I launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the first woman to hold such a role.
“I’ve talked a lot about appreciating the moment you’re in,” Blackwell-Thompson said in comments to the engineers in the shooting room. “We’ve worked hard as a team. You have worked hard as a team up to this moment. This is your moment.
Blackwell-Thompson then announced it was time for tie-cutting, a NASA tradition in which launch operators cut the ends of their business ties. Blackwell-Thompson was cut off by shuttle launch director Mike Leinback, who assured the others in the room, “I have to stay all night. I would be happy to cut ties.