NASA goes back to the moon with the launch of Artemis I

Fifty years after the last Apollo lunar mission, NASA has taken a critical first step toward returning astronauts to the lunar surface.

The agency launched its new mega rocket and space capsule on a mission to the moon on Wednesday in an unmanned test flight known as Artemis I. The massive rocket was launched at 1:48 a.m. ET from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

“[F]or the Artemis generation, this is for you,” said launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the agency’s first female launch director, before giving the go-ahead for the launch.

The event marked the much-anticipated first launch of NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, a next-generation booster that the agency says is the “most powerful rocket in the world.” On top of the 100-meter rocket was the gum drop-shaped Orion capsule that will eventually take astronauts to the moon.

Blackwell-Thompson told her team members in a post-launch speech that their work will inspire generations to come.

“You’ve earned this moment,” she said. “You have earned your place in history.”

The pivotal launch is the first step toward returning U.S. astronauts to the moon and eventually Mars, Blackwell-Thompson said.

“You are part of a first. They don’t come around very often — maybe once in a career,” she said. “But we’re all part of something incredibly special: the first launch of Artemis.”

The 26-day Artemis I flight is designed to test the SLS rocket and Orion capsule before missions with humans on board. The spacecraft carries a set of mannequins loaded with sensors to study in-flight conditions and measure radiation levels during the mission.

NASA artemis rocket launch (John Raoux / AP)

NASA artemis rocket launch (John Raoux / AP)

The Orion spacecraft will travel to the moon and remain in orbit for a few weeks before returning to Earth. The capsule is expected to splash into the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11.

The Artemis I mission finally got off the ground after two attempts — one in late August and one in early September — were called off due to a faulty sensor and a series of hydrogen fuel leaks.

The flight was also thwarted by stormy weather. The rocket was returned to NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building in late September, ahead of Hurricane Ian, which wreaked catastrophic damage in southwest Florida. Last week, the agency was again forced to reschedule the launch of Artemis I when Hurricane Nicole slammed into Florida’s east coast on Nov. 10, making landfall more than 70 miles south of the launch pad, according to NASA.

This time, the massive SLS booster managed to blast into orbit, though the countdown to launch wasn’t without its own drama.

Shortly before 10 p.m. ET, intermittent leaks of liquid hydrogen were detected from a valve at the base of the launch pad. The leaks were different from the ones that forced NASA to call off the first two Artemis launch attempts.

The agency chose to send a highly trained “red team” of two technicians to the launch pad to tighten the bolts on the valve. The work took place near the largely fueled missile, in what is known as the blast hazard area, and was therefore closely monitored by safety teams, agency officials said.

Despite being about 40 minutes behind schedule, the engineers were able to fix the leak and proceed with the rest of the refueling process and countdown.

Artemis is named after the goddess of Greek mythology, the twin sister of Apollo. If this and subsequent test flights are successful, the agency could send humans to the lunar surface as early as 2025.

As part of the Artemis program, NASA envisions regular missions to establish a base camp on the lunar surface before it eventually heads to Mars.

The much-anticipated Artemis I test flight was launched after more than a decade of work by NASA to develop a mega rocket that exceeds the capabilities and size of the iconic Saturn V rockets used during the Apollo lunar program, the last flight of which took place in 1972 took place. initiative has been criticized over the years for being years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

At a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing this year, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin said the agency will likely have spent $93 billion on the Artemis program from 2012 to 2025. He said any Artemis launch to expected to cost approximately $4.1 billion.

If successful, Artemis I will be followed by a planned Artemis II test flight tentatively scheduled sometime in 2024. That mission will launch four astronauts in the Orion spacecraft on an expedition around the moon. After that, NASA said, the Artemis III flight will include the first woman and first person of color to land on the moon.

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