NASA Finally Launches Its Artemis Moon Mission

The uncrewed mission is on its way to the Moon after a successful launch on the world’s most powerful rocket.
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Image: NASA

NASA’s Artemis I mission is finally on its way to the Moon, a feat that marks the debut of the world’s most powerful rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and secures a major milestone in the agency’s quest to return humans to the lunar surface in the coming years. 

The long-awaited mission is not carrying any astronauts on its journey to orbit the Moon, though it will test out the new Orion spacecraft that NASA plans to use for crewed trips beyond Earth, including to Mars, in the future.

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SLS, which produces even more thrust than the Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon a half-century ago, blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 1:47 am Eastern Time for its very first flight on Wednesday. 

The rocket successfully delivered the Orion spacecraft into orbit, kicking off a journey around the Moon and back that will last about 25 days. If all goes to plan, Orion will return to Earth after its lunar test flight and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on December 11.

“What an incredible sight to see NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft launch together for the first time,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson in a statement. “This uncrewed flight test will push Orion to the limits in the rigors of deep space, helping us prepare for human exploration on the Moon and, ultimately, Mars.” 

This launch was no doubt met with a collective sigh of relief from the Artemis team, as the mission has experienced a host of setbacks and delays. SLS was originally scheduled to embark on its first flight back in August, but a sensor malfunction and a hydrogen leak scuttled that plan. 

The mission was pushed back two more times by Hurricane Ian in September and Hurricane Nicole last week. Though Nicole damaged Orion slightly, mission leads decided it was safe to proceed with Wednesday’s launch, setting Artemis I on course to orbit the Moon.

Orion will reach lunar orbit in the coming days and pass within just 60 miles of the Moon’s surface next Monday, November 21. It will then swing out to an altitude of 40,000 miles before performing another close pass on December 5, which will give it the gravitational assist to return to Earth.

The launch marks the official beginning of the Artemis Program, a series of missions spearheaded by NASA that aims to send several crews on the lunar surface. Among the goals of the program is to land the first woman and person of color on the Moon, and to establish a laboratory called the Lunar Gateway in lunar orbit. 

“The Space Launch System rocket delivered the power and performance to send Orion on its way to the Moon,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager, in a statement. “With the accomplishment of the first major milestone of the mission, Orion will now embark on the next phase to test its systems and prepare for future missions with astronauts.”