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The historic Artemis I mission took off in the early hours of Wednesday morning after months of anticipation. The milestone event launched a journey that will send an uncrewed 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 towering 322-foot-tall (98-meter-tall) Space Launch System, or SLS, ignited its engines at 1:47 a.m. ET. It released up to 9 million pounds (4.1 million kilograms) of thrust to hoist itself off the Florida launch pad and into the air, streaking vibrantly across the night sky.
On top of the rocket was the Orion spacecraft, a gumdrop-shaped capsule that broke away from the rocket after reaching space. Orion is designed to carry humans, but its passengers for this test mission are of the inanimate variety, including some dummies collecting vital data to aid future live crews.
The SLS rocket expended millions of pounds of fuel before parts of the rocket started to come apart, and Orion had to fly into orbit with just one big engine. This engine then fired two powerful burns to put the spacecraft on the right trajectory to the moon. Then, about two hours after liftoff, the rocket engine also fell, leaving Orion to fly free for the rest of its journey.
Orion is expected to travel about 1.3 million miles (2 million kilometers), taking a path that will take it farther than any other spacecraft designed for human flight, according to NASA. After circling the moon, Orion will make its return trip, completing its journey in about 25.5 days. The capsule is then expected to crash into the Pacific Ocean off San Diego on December 11, when recovery teams will be waiting nearby to transport it to safety.
Throughout the mission, NASA engineers will closely monitor the performance of the spacecraft. The team will assess whether Orion performs as intended and will be ready to support its first crewed mission to lunar orbit, which is currently scheduled for 2024.
This mission also marks the first flight of the most powerful SLS rocket to ever reach Earth orbit, with 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rocket that powered NASA’s moon landings in the 20th century.
And this mission is just the first in what is expected to be a long line of increasingly difficult Artemis missions as NASA works toward its goal of establishing a permanent outpost on the Moon. Artemis II will follow a similar path to Artemis I but will have astronauts on board. Artemis III, scheduled for the end of this decade, is expected to land a woman and a person of color on the lunar surface for the first time.
Read more: The big numbers that make the Artemis I mission a monumental achievement
The mission team encountered a number of setbacks ahead of Wednesday morning’s launch, including technical issues with the mega moon rocket and two hurricanes that ripped through the launch site.
Fueling the SLS rocket with supercooled liquid hydrogen proved to be one of the main problems that forced NASA to cancel previous liftoff attempts, but on Tuesday the tanks were filled despite leaking issues that disrupted refueling hours before launch.
To address this problem, NASA has deployed what it calls a “red crew” – a specially trained group of personnel to carry out repairs while the rocket is loaded with propellant. They tightened nuts and bolts to stop fuel leaks.
“The rocket, it’s alive, it’s creaking, it’s making venting noises – it’s pretty scary. So… my heart was pounding. My nerves were going but, yeah, we showed up today. When we rode the stairs. We were ready to rock and roll,” Red Crew member Trent Annis said in an interview on NASA TV after launch.
Other NASA personnel in the launch site firing range, where agency officials make crucial decisions in the hours and moments before liftoff, celebrated a victory.
“Well, for once, I might be speechless,” said Artemis I cast director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the first woman to take on such a role.
“I’ve talked a lot about enjoying the moment you’re in,” Blackwell-Thompson said in his remarks to engineers in the shooting room. “And we worked hard as a team. You have worked hard as a team so far. Now is your time.
Blackwell-Thompson then said it was time to cut ties, a NASA tradition in which launch operators cut the ends of their business ties. Blackwell-Thompson’s was cut off by Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach, and she promised the others in the room, “I’ll stay all night if I have to.” It will be my pleasure to cut ties.
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