NASA succeeded spectacularly in the third attempt to launch its Space Launch System rocket on an uncrewed round-the-moon mission that’s meant to blaze a trail for future Artemis lunar landings.
Artemis 1’s liftoff from Launch Complex 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida came at 1:47 a.m. ET Nov. 16 (10:47 p.m. PT Nov. 15).
The 322-foot-tall, 5.5 million-pound SLS is the most powerful rocket ever built for NASA, surpassing the power of the Apollo era’s Saturn V rocket. The SLS evoked the legacy of Saturn V as it rose on a bright pillar of flame and disappeared into the night sky.
“You guys have worked hard as a team for this moment. This is your moment,” launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson told her teammates in the control room after liftoff. “You have earned your place in history. You are part of a first. It doesn’t come along very often — once in a career, maybe. But we are part of something very special: the first launch of Artemis. The first step in returning our country to the moon, and on to Mars.”
At one point during the countdown, NASA detected hydrogen leaking from a valve inside the rocket’s mobile launcher, and sent a three-person “red team” to the pad to troubleshoot the issue. The red team tightened down several bolts, remedying that problem. Engineers also had to swap out with a bad Ethernet switch for one of the radar monitoring the range. Yet another concern involved a loose sensor on the Orion capsule sitting atop the rocket.
The time required to address all those concerns delayed liftoff by 43 minutes, but Blackwell-Thompson didn’t dwell on the delay. “The harder the climb, the better the view,” she said.
Nearly two hours after launch, the SLS’ upper stage executed the key engine burn to send Orion beyond Earth orbit. The capsule is due to make a weeks-long, looping trip that will come as near as 60 miles to the lunar surface but also range 40,000 miles beyond the moon’s orbit.
Instead of living, breathing astronauts, the capsule’s seats are filled by three sensor-laden mannequins that will register what kind of ride future crews might experience. There’s also a modified version of Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant on board. Amazon collaborated with Lockheed Martin and Cisco to create the AI agent, which is known as Callisto and could serve as an information resource during future missions to the moon and Mars.
Artemis 1 was initially scheduled for liftoff in August, but problems encountered during fueling spoiled the first attempt. Days later, the second attempt was scrubbed because of a pesky hydrogen leak. Plans for the third attempt were further delayed by lingering technical concerns as well as worries about the weather — including two hurricanes that swept over Florida’s Space Coast.
The SLS was rolled back to safety in its Vehicle Assembly Building for Hurricane Ian in September. But after weighing the risks, NASA opted to leave the rocket on the launch pad last week when Hurricane Nicole passed through.
One of the components on an electrical connector sustained damage, and some of the caulking on a seam in the area around the Orion capsule came loose in the storm. The launch team reported that a sensor in the caulking material appeared to be loose and might come off during launch, but mission managers decided to go ahead anyway.
Artemis 1 marks the start of a lunar exploration campaign that’s been more than a decade and billions of dollars in the making. The current plan calls for a 26-day mission, ending on Dec. 11 with a Pacific Ocean splashdown. One of the most crucial tests will come during Orion’s descent — when the capsule’s heat shield will be tested to an extent that’s impossible to replicate on Earth.
If this uncrewed mission is successful, that would set the stage for a crewed round-the-moon mission known as Artemis 2 in 2024 or so. NASA plans to have Artemis 3’s astronauts touch down on the lunar surface in the 2025, although that date is almost certain to slip. Whenever it happens, Artemis 3 would mark the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972 that humans set foot on the moon — and would potentially set the stage for trips to Mars in the 2030s.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the Artemis program — which is named after Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology — would build on Apollo’s lunar legacy. “This time, we’re going back, and we’re going to learn a lot of what we have to, and then we’re going to Mars with humans,” Nelson said.
Nelson said the fact that Artemis 3 aims to put the first woman and the first person of color on the moon is part of the program’s appeal. “It’s also going to bring about a new generation of engineers and mathematicians and technologists and scientists,” he said. “All the benefits of that additional activity and education coming out of the Artemis generation — look what that’s going to do for our country and our economy, as well as for our international partners.”
This report was updated multiple times before and after launch.