NASA finally launches Artemis I rocket on 25 day moon mission

NASA’s Artemis 1 lifts off from launch pad 39-B at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., carrying the Orion spacecraft on a mission to orbit the moon, early Wednesday, November 16, 2022. The Orion capsule is scheduled to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Dex, 11 after 25 days in space.

Richard Tribou

Orlando Sentinel

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — NASA put on a light show and shook the Earth, sending Artemis I on its way to the moon with a record-breaking launch early Wednesday.

The sky turned from dark to light as the Space Launch System blasted with 8.8 million pounds of thrust taking off at 1:47 a.m. from KSC’s Launch Pad 39-B to become the most powerful rocket to ever successfully launch into space.

“For once I might be speechless,” said NASA launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson to her team. “This is your moment. … You are part of a first. We are all part of something incredibly special, the first launch of Artemis, the first step of returning our country to the moon and onto Mars. … The harder the climb, the better the view. We showed the Space Coast tonight what a beautiful view it is.”

Cheers washed across the space center as the uncrewed rocket left the pad but fell to a deferential silence as the engines cracked through the air with a deafening roar. The sound wave brought a forceful punch to the ears and chest as the rocket continued to burn upward, pulling close in the eastern sky to the waning moon.

“That’s the biggest flame I’ve ever seen,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former U.S. senator and space shuttle astronaut. “The most acoustical shockwave that I had ever experienced. … I’m telling you, you definitely knew that there was energy being expended.”

Ahead of launch, NASA astronaut Stan Love had a giddy smile when he talked about what the rocket’s power would do to his senses come launch time.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said, noting the Saturn V Apollo mission rockets and space shuttles packed a lesser 7.5 million pounds of thrust. “You’ll see engines light. There’ll be a couple of seconds before the sound gets to you. And then it will vibrate the air in your chest like you’re in front of the Marshall [amplifier] stacks at a major concert.”

The lead-up to launch stayed issue-free for the majority of tanking procedures that began Tuesday afternoon, but soon after 10 p.m., yet another liquid hydrogen leak headache emerged, coupled with a malfunctioning radar down range. Liquid hydrogen leaks had led to previous scrubs of launch attempts in August and September as well as problems during wet dress rehearsals in the spring.

But teams overcame Tuesday night’s problems, so it forced only a 43-minute delay into the two-hour window that opened at 1:04 a.m.

NASA halted some tanking of liquid hydrogen to send technicians to the launch pad to tighten bolts on the mobile launcher. The U.S. Space Force sent personnel out to the downrange radar site to replace an ethernet switch required for the radar to be able to send a signal to the rocket in case it needed to self-destruct.

Two minutes after liftoff, the two solid rocket boosters dropped off, followed by separation of the 212-foot-tall core stage abotu eight minutes into flight after having done their job to push the Orion spacecraft up into low-Earth orbit.

The spacecraft then deployed its solar array wings and began to raise its altitude before beginning an 18-minute burn courtesy of the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, which will break away before sending Orion on its way to the moon.

Orion will spend 25 1/2 days with several orbits around the moon that will bring as close as 80 miles from its surface, and as far away as 40,000 miles, which will be about 268,000 miles from Earth, the farthest away any human-rated spacecraft has ever flown.

It’s slated to return to Earth splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11. Its return trip will bring it in hot, faster than any other human-rated spacecraft hitting Mach 32 around 24,500 mph generating heat near 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The mission’s main objective is to prove Orion can safely transport astronauts on future missions. Artemis II is currently slated for as early as May 2024, which will bring four astronauts also on an orbital lunar mission. Artemis III is slated for as early as 2025, and that mission looks to return humans, including the first woman, back to the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.

Artemis was announced in 2012 out of the ashes of the canceled Constellation program. The first launch was originally targeting 2016 with a cost expected to be only $500,000, but now comes more than eight years later with costs that have ballooned to $4.1 billion, according to estimates by a November 2021 audit for NASA’s Office of the Inspector General.

The total cost of the first four Artemis missions are projected to top $93 billion, but the bevy of commercial contractors including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Aerojet Rocketdyne have promised 30% to 50% cost cuts for missions beyond Artemis IV.

But first, Artemis I needs to get home safely. It has more than 1.4 million miles to go before arriving back to Earth, but Wednesday’s successful launch was worth celebrating, Nelson said.

“I said to [the Launch Control Center team], you all are a part of a great legacy that has been many, many years coming,” he said. “A lot of sweat and tears, and this legacy is now taking us as we explore the heavens and it didn’t end with Apollo 17. But 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.”

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