CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA took a significant step toward returning astronauts to the lunar surface early Wednesday, launching its massive Space Launch System rocket and lofting the first spacecraft designed to fly humans to the moon since the Apollo era.
“It’s a great day,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said after the launch.
The flight marked the first launch of the SLS rocket, a 322-foot-tall beast in development for a decade, and propelled a capsule, known as Orion, through the atmosphere toward the moon as part of its Artemis program. Because the mission is a test flight — a rehearsal for future missions — no astronauts were onboard, and the spacecraft won’t land on the moon. Rather, Orion is to stay in lunar orbit in a flight that is expected to last up to 25½ days and demonstrate, NASA hopes, that the rocket and spacecraft are capable of flying safely.
If all goes well, NASA plans another flight, called Artemis II, with astronauts that will orbit the moon in 2024. A lunar landing is scheduled for 2025, but many think it will be later. To get astronauts to the surface, NASA intends to use a separate spacecraft being developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
While a lunar landing may still be years away, the successful launch of Artemis I marked a significant milestone for the space agency. NASA has not sent an astronaut beyond low Earth orbit since the last of the Apollo missions, in 1972, when astronaut Eugene Cernan promised “we shall return” in a short speech before he climbed back into the lunar module for the trip back to Earth.
In the 50 years since, NASA’s on-and-off attempts to fulfill that pledge have been unsuccessful, and its human spaceflight missions have been confined to the neighborhood just outside of Earth’s atmosphere, where the International Space Station flies, 240 miles up.
While various presidential administrations over the years have directed NASA to varying targets — the moon, then Mars and an asteroid — NASA has been able to maintain real momentum only with its Artemis program, an attempt to create a permanent presence on and around the moon that started during the Trump administration and was embraced by President Biden.
The flight comes as China is also looking to land crews on the moon and is building its own space station in Earth’s orbit. Both China and the United States are aiming for the moon’s south pole, where there is water in the form of ice in the permanently shadowed craters.
NASA has struggled for years to get its SLS rocket off the ground, and briefly during the countdown to Wednesday’s launch, there was concern about another setback when NASA detected a leak of liquid hydrogen, the same kind of malfunction that had scuttled two previous launch attempts. But NASA dispatched a pair of engineers, along with a safety officer, to the launchpad to tighten some bolts, which successfully stopped the leak, allowing the countdown to continue.
After the launch, Artemis I launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson congratulated her team.
“You have earned your place in this room,” she told them. “You have earned this moment. You have earned your place in history. You are part of a first. It doesn’t come along very often. The first step in returning our country to the moon and on to Mars. What you have done today will inspire generations to come. So thank you. Thank you for your resilience.”
Born from a compromise with Congress in 2010, the SLS rocket has been in development for years and suffered so many technical delays and management challenges that some wondered whether it would ever fly. It had been derided by critics as the “Senate Launch System” for doing more to provide jobs in key congressional districts than explore space and has been the subject of a series of scathing reports by government watchdogs who criticized NASA’s poor management and the lackluster performance of Boeing, the rocket’s prime contractor.
The launch comes as a number of companies are building rockets that fly back to Earth so they can be reused. The booster stage of the SLS, by contrast, is ditched in the ocean after launch, never to be used again.
In recent years, however, NASA and Boeing made a concerted effort to get the program back on track, and the launch Wednesday was a major milestone — and a relief for NASA’s leadership. The liftoff sent a deafening roar across Florida as the rocket climbed higher and higher. A couple minutes after liftoff, its side-mounted solid rocket boosters separated. Then the core stage fell away. Then the rocket’s second stage fired its engines for nearly 18 minutes, putting Orion on course for the moon.
“It was a long time coming to get here,” Nelson said after the launch. “And we still have a long way to go.”
He said NASA is focused on putting the vehicles through their paces to prepare for what’s to come. “We are stressing it and testing it in ways we would not do to a rocket that has a human crew on it,” he said. “That’s the purpose — to make it as safe as possible, as reliable as possible for when our astronauts crawl on board and go back to the moon.”
The spacecraft is expected to reach the moon in several days, then spend a couple of weeks in orbit around the moon before returning home. Splashdown in the Pacific Ocean is expected on Dec. 11 near San Diego.
Despite the early success, the launch is just the first step in a long journey to the moon and back, and NASA officials have warned that things could still go wrong.
Bob Cabana, NASA’s associate administrator and a former astronaut, stressed this year that the mission was a test flight designed to ferret out problems before NASA puts humans onboard. The mission could encounter some challenges, he said, “that can cause us to come home early, and that’s okay. We have contingencies in place.”
One of the biggest challenges will be testing Orion’s heat shield. As it returns from the moon, it will be traveling 24,500 mph, or Mach 32, and generate temperatures, a NASA official said, that will reach “half as high as the sun.”
NASA has built a website that will allow people to follow the journey of the Orion spacecraft as it flies from Earth to the moon and back again. The website will “provide real-time data beginning about one minute after liftoff” and chronicle its flight for the days to come, as it flies some 40,000 miles past the moon.
The website can be found here. For more information, NASA urges people to also follow the @NASA_Orion Twitter account.