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After several high-profile delays brought on by hardware and hurricanes, a towering rocket emblazoned with NASA logos blasted off from Florida on Wednesday, finally kicking off a monthlong mission to the moon that hearkens back to the Apollo days more than 50 years ago.
At 1:47 a.m. EST, the multibillion-dollar Space Launch System’s four main engines and two solid rocket boosters rumbled to life at Kennedy Space Center with a whopping 8.8 million pounds of thrust, making it the world’s most powerful operational rocket. It marked SLS’ first launch under the umbrella of NASA’s Artemis program and third attempt overall.
Less than 20 minutes into flight, the Orion capsule secured atop the rocket began deploying its solar arrays, kicking off an uncrewed 26-day mission to lunar orbit. With help from the United Launch Alliance-built upper stage, Orion fired off toward the moon – known as the translunar injection – just after 3:30 a.m. EST.
“It is not by chance that you are here today,” Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, NASA’s Artemis launch director, told a packed Launch Control Center after liftoff. “I want you to look around, look around at this team, and know that you have earned it. You have earned your place in the room, you have earned this moment, you have earned your place in history.”
“You are part of a first that doesn’t come along very often – once in a career, maybe,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “But we are all part of something incredibly special: the first launch of Artemis. The first step in returning our country to the moon and on to Mars.”
Artemis I is NASA’s first demonstration flight under the program and, if all goes well, will make room for a follow-up mission sometime before 2025. If schedules hold, Artemis II will include a similar flight profile to Wednesday’s launch but also send astronauts in the Orion capsule. Artemis III will then attempt to put two people on the surface before 2030.
The countdown leading to the Space Coast’s 50th launch of the year, however, was a story in and of itself.
A tense countdown at KSC
There was no shortage of opportunities to launch Artemis I.
Managers tried in August and September, but had to stand down due to hardware issues at pad 39B – namely the loading of liquid hydrogen into the rocket’s massive, Boeing-built core stage. Just when NASA appeared to resolve the problems, hurricanes Ian and Nicole barreled through Florida, first causing the agency to roll the rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building to avoid Ian, then suffering minor damages to some of the Orion capsule.
Nicole caused some caulk-like material to be stripped away from Orion and raised questions about whether or not more could become dislodged in flight and strike other portions of the rocket. Officials said the soft, pliable material would not noticeably increase the loss-of-mission risk, which had previously been calculated at 1 in 125.
Going into the count Tuesday night, all appeared to be moving along smoothly until a small hydrogen leak was detected. Though nearly fully fueled, SLS could not proceed with liftoff without some kind of repair to a hydrogen top-off line down near the base of the rocket. Supercooled liquid hydrogen and oxygen are NASA’s propellants of choice for SLS.
NASA opted to do something rarely seen in spaceflight: send technicians into a blast danger area, or BDA, to fix hardware just feet away from a pressurized vehicle capable of holding 733,000 gallons of energy-dense propellants. The three technicians, called the “red team,” moved in and tightened nuts around a hydrogen fill line and departed the pad without issue.
Without the red team – Trent Annis, Billy Cairns, and Chad Garrett – Artemis I would not have flown Wednesday.
“We were very focused on what was happening up there,” Annis, a cryogenic engineering technician, said during a post-launch interview on NASA TV. “The rocket’s alive – it’s creaking, making venting noises, it’s pretty scary. My heart was pumping.”
Cairns, also a cryogenic technician, had been a red team crew member for 37 years before he was called into action for the first time Wednesday to help fix the leak. Both were overseen by Garrett, their safety engineer, and all are employed by ERC, part of Jacobs’ Test and Operations Support Contract at KSC.
“We showed up today. As soon as we walked up those stairs, we were ready to rock and roll,” Annis said.
Once the leak was resolved, however, another issue popped up: Connectivity was lost with a critical radar tracking station deep into the countdown. That would have also led to a scrub since the station is part of a series of systems designed to destroy a rocket in the event of an emergency, also known as the flight termination system or FTS.
The issue at the Space Force-operated station was traced to networking hardware. Once replaced and tested, mission managers eventually gave the “go” to proceed with launch at 1:47 a.m., or 43 minutes later than planned.
What’s left for NASA
Over the next 26 days, the Lockheed Martin-built Orion capsule will have to perform a complicated series of maneuvers to enter lunar orbit, circle the moon, then depart before returning to Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
By the fifth day, Orion should arrive in the area of the moon. The timeline includes:
- Days 6 to 9: Transit to a lunar orbit known as distant retrograde (DRO); closest approach, 60 miles, happens in this timeframe
- Days 10 to 15: Stay in DRO; break Apollo 13’s record for farthest capsule from Earth
- Days 16 to 19: Exit DRO
- Days 20 to 26: Return to Earth
- Day 26 (Dec. 11): Entry and splashdown in the Pacific
After splashdown, teams will pluck the 16-foot-diameter spacecraft out of waters off the coast of California using a San Antonio-class Navy ship. That class of amphibious ship is ideal for capsule recovery since it includes a built-in dock and large helicopter landing deck. The latter will be especially important during future Artemis missions that include astronauts since they’ll need to be flown back to land after splashdown.
The Artemis program is a serious – and seriously expensive – attempt at establishing a long-term foothold on the moon and, someday, Mars. According to NASA’s own inspector general, the program could run as high as $93 billion through 2025, a staggering number for a program that’s been delayed years and flown once so far. Each launch is projected to cost about $4.1 billion.
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If everything goes according to plan, though, SLS and Orion will act as the architecture that makes those goals happen.
To keep Artemis on track and avoid cuts from Congress and taxpayers alike, almost everything has to go perfectly. And, in the case of flying with astronauts where lives are at risk, even more so.
Much of that risk comes down to the last phase of the mission when Orion, approaching Earth at some 25,000 mph, will need to survive a fiery re-entry. The heat shield has to hold.
“Space is hard and it’s expensive,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told FLORIDA TODAY. “And as a result, there are risks we accept.”
“You can’t simulate the burning of a heat shield in a laboratory. You have to go do it, especially when it’s coming in and approaching 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit,” Nelson said.
If Artemis I goes according to plan, however, Nelson said the rest is obvious.
“We’re going to the moon, then we’re going to Mars. That’s if everything’s right. If everything’s not right, then we’ll fix it and we’ll still go to the moon and Mars,” he said.
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Contact Emre Kelly at email@example.com or 321-242-3715. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @EmreKelly.
Space Launch System (SLS) Infographics