Artemis I has (finally) launched, kickstarting NASA’s return to the moon

After false starts and weather delays, NASA’s most powerful rocket ever successfully lifted off. The uncrewed Orion spacecraft now embarks on a four-week mission.

By Michael Greshko
Published 16 Nov 2022, 15:43 GMT
The Artemis I mission lifts off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, sending a new spacecraft on an uncrewed test flight to the moon.
Photograph by Dan Winters, National Geographic

In the predawn hours at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre, the silvery glow of the half-moon was briefly drowned out by an artificial sun.

At 1:47 a.m. ET (6.47am GMT)  on November 16, the most powerful rocket ever launched tore through the thick air of the Florida night. The 30-storey flying machine, known as the Space Launch System (SLS), leapt skyward atop a blindingly bright exhaust flame that illuminated the crowds of spectators.

After the lightning came the thunder. Shockwaves from the rocket’s 8.8 million pounds of thrust—equivalent to 31 jumbo jets—rattled onlookers’ chests more than three miles away. Less than eight minutes after liftoff, the crackling rocket, accelerating to more than 17,000 miles an hour, was just a pinprick in the distance.

“I love it when it just turns into a star,” exclaimed NASA astronaut Christina Koch, watching from the grass in front of the launch complex’s countdown clock. “Pretty awesome,” muttered Jacob Bleacher, the space agency’s chief exploration scientist.

The inaugural launch of NASA’s newest rocket sent the Orion spacecraft—a metallic gumdrop twice the size of a minivan—on the first leg of a four-week voyage to the moon and back. Filled with science experiments and instruments meant to monitor the flight, Orion will now be rigorously tested to certify the spacecraft for future crewed missions.

“What you have done today will inspire generations to come,” mission launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson told her team shortly after liftoff. “The harder the climb, the better the view. We showed the Space Coast tonight what a beautiful view it is.”

The uncrewed mission, known as Artemis I, is a critical step in NASA’s campaign to return humans to the moon for the first time in more than 50 yearsIf all goes to plan, the first astronauts will land on the lunar surface as soon as 2025, followed by a series of missions to establish a sustained presence. Among the first astronauts NASA sends to the surface, the space agency has promised, will be the first woman and first person of colour. “We’re going back to the moon to live and learn in order to go to Mars,” says NASA administrator Bill Nelson. “That’s the next great adventure.”

Artemis I, the first lunar flight of the program, will last nearly 26 days. That’s slightly longer than Orion was designed to fly with crew aboard. NASA estimates there’s a 1-in-125 risk of losing the spacecraft while it is aloft. Debris could strike the vehicle. Its systems may suffer glitches. And Orion’s heat shield must withstand the descent to Earth at a blistering 25,000 miles an hour.

“This is turning the first page on a brand-new chapter of space exploration,” says Bleacher. “Everything that we do from here on out is going to be based off this launch. Artemis I is going to give us the data that gives us the confidence to send our friends—our astronauts—out there.”

A new lunar program

The Artemis I launch marked a dramatic end to months of stops and starts for the program, which is estimated to cost £74 billion through 2025 and has already had to overcome more than a decade of technical issues, delays, and cost overages in its efforts to reach the moon.

A VIP-studded launch attempt on August 29, with Vice President Kamala Harris in attendance, was called off because of weather delays, a misbehaving temperature sensor, and a hydrogen fuel leak. Another attempt in September ended with excessive hydrogen leaks that required repairs. Next came the Category 4 Hurricane Ian, whose late September landfall forced NASA to stand down.

After rolling the rocket back into the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for maintenance and then rolling it back to the launchpad in early November—a slow and meticulous process—NASA had to contend with another storm, Category 1 Hurricane Nicole, a rare November cyclone that made landfall roughly 70 miles south of Kennedy Space Centre. The rocket withstood wind gusts approaching 100 miles an hour, which caused minor damage to external sealant near the top of the vehicle. After multiple inspections, NASA gave the all-clear for launch.

NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket illuminates the hazy sky with the countdown clock at Kennedy Space Center visible in the foreground.
Photograph by Dan Winters, National Geographic

Just hours before the flight, however, another troublesome hydrogen fuel leak reared its head. With the rocket fully fuelled, NASA sent a crew out to the launch pad to tighten the bolts on the leaky valve by hand. “The rocket, it’s alive. It’s creaking. It’s making venting noises. It’s pretty scary,” Trent Annis, one of the technicians who worked on the repair, said after the launch. “My heart was pumping, my nerves were going, but yeah—we showed up today.”

The unplanned repair led to one final schedule slippage before Artemis I finally escaped the bonds of gravity. And liftoff was just the opening movement of a complex symphony. Two minutes and 12 seconds into flight, the twin boosters on the sides of the SLS rocket detached and tumbled into the Atlantic Ocean. Six minutes and 18 seconds later, SLS’s hulking orange core stage split off and began a descent into the Pacific Ocean. The rocket’s upper stage then barrelled ahead and, about an hour and a half after launch, sent the Orion capsule on a trajectory toward the moon.

On November 21 Orion will perform a high-stakes manoeuvre, firing its primary engine to fly as close as 60 miles above the lunar surface before moving to a more distant orbit with another engine burn on November 25. Six days later, Orion will again ignite its engine to depart from the moon and begin its return home.

After a fiery descent through Earth’s atmosphere, Orion will release its three parachutes and splash down in the ocean, likely in the Pacific but with a contingency plan for the Atlantic. The spacecraft’s recovery by the U.S. military will require more than 500 people—a major rehearsal for eventual crewed flights. By the time Orion splashes down, the team will have completed six test recoveries with dummy capsules, as well as a full rehearsal just days beforehand.

“It’s been a lot of fun, but it has been a lot of work,” says Melissa Jones of NASA, who is overseeing the landing and recovery operations. “We have not basically recovered a water capsule [in] over 50 years, so we've had to develop [operations] from the ground up.”

A foothold in space

For all the superficial similarities with Apollo—the big rocket, the gumdrop-shaped capsule, the moon—Artemis is being carried out for a different reason. This time around, NASA says, people are going to the moon not for brief explorations, but to stay.

After Artemis II, which will launch a four-astronaut crew to fly around the moon no sooner than May 2024, the agency is planning Artemis III as the program’s first crewed sortie on the lunar surface. In lunar orbit, two astronauts will transfer from Orion to a waiting SpaceX lander that will ferry them to the ground. The target: a site near the lunar south pole, which has ice and other resources essential to maintaining a long-term human presence.

The vehicles for Artemis II and III are already under construction. In NASA’s vast Michoud Assembly Facility east of downtown New Orleans, engineers are putting the finishing touches on the orange core stage of the SLS rocket for Artemis II. Meanwhile, at Kennedy Space Centre, technicians in white “bunny suits” are assembling the Orion capsule for the same mission. In another part of the same bright white room, the Artemis III Orion is starting to take on its final shape.

For the astronauts, seeing the Artemis vehicles come together is a dream come true. “Nothing of this scale has ever launched during my lifetime. I haven’t seen anything like this,” says NASA astronaut Jessica Meir. “It’s starting to sink in that it's real.”

“It’s like you’re a child, and you’ve been waiting for that toy that is really something that you have desired—you have dreamt about it—and your birthday is coming up,” adds European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano.

 More hardware is being developed for even more ambitious missions. Beginning with Artemis IV, NASA plans to build a bare-bones space station in lunar orbit called Gateway. Astronauts would use this station as a staging ground for a series of missions to the same south pole area, ultimately building infrastructure there. Proposals include power stations, landing pads, communication systems, and habitats capable of supporting crews for up to 30 days at a time.

A stepping stone to the solar system

Though Artemis I is a test flight, it carries experiments to help prepare for human expeditions. About two hours in, when Orion separates from the SLS upper stage, a flotilla of 10 CubeSats—shoebox-size satellites—will scatter to explore the solar system. Some will go on to the moon, such as Japan’s OMOTENASHI, which will deploy a 680g “nanolander” that will attempt to become the smallest lunar lander in history. Others will explore farther-flung locales. NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, for example, will deploy a 910-square-foot reflective sail that will be pushed by sunlight to travel to the asteroid 2020 GE, a worldlet less than 60 feet across.

Three anatomical dummies loaded with sensors will measure the forces of spaceflight and exposure to radiation, and Orion holds caches of plant seeds, moulds, yeast, and algae in a container called Biological Experiment-1. The specimens will help reveal how life responds to the harsh environment of deep space, as well as how diverse life-forms respond to the unusual conditions of microgravity.

“I talk to my daughters, and we talk about the moon, and I tell them that Daddy’s sending an experiment around that,” says University of Colorado Boulder aerospace engineer Luis Zea, one of the biological project’s principal investigators. “Hopefully our science collectively will change things for the better, in enabling safe and sustainable human space exploration.”

While the moon is an important scientific target, holding geological information about the 4.5 billion-year history of the solar system, it’s also a proving ground for NASA’s ultimate goal: a crewed journey to Mars by the late 2030s. The moon and Mars differ in key ways—Mars has an atmosphere, for one—but both are forbidding landscapes where technologies such as pressurised rovers and next-generation spacesuits will be required.

“Just like the moon, there are a lot of science questions about Mars, and preparing to get astronauts there [requires that we] start with the moon … and learn there before moving on,” says NASA chief scientist Kate Calvin.

A global push to other worlds

Whether Artemis will lead to Mars—a journey that will take months, while reaching the moon takes only days—will depend largely on money and political will. Achieving the program’s audacious goal will also rely on an advantage Apollo never had—support from other countries. The International Space Station (ISS) has required decades of collaboration between the U.S., Russia, Canada, Europe, and Japan. Building on that 20-year legacy, the world’s spacefaring community is bigger and more diverse than ever.

While NASA and Lockheed Martin built the Orion spacecraft’s Crew Module to house the astronauts, the spacecraft’s power systems and main engine are part of the European Service Module (ESM), built by the European Space Agency in partnership with the French aerospace firm Airbus.

“Europe through the ESM is, for the first time ever, a key partner with a critical component of a flagship mission of NASA—and this is huge, it cannot be undervalued or understated,” says ESA director general Josef Aschbacher. “For us, a chapter of [the] moon is now opening, and for Europe it’s really opened for the first time.”

NASA has teamed with ESA and the space agencies of Canada and Japan to build the Gateway lunar space station. The U.S. and 20 other countries have also signed the Artemis Accords, a set of non-binding agreements that outline principles for peaceful cooperation in space. And when Artemis II launches, a Canadian astronaut will be on board.

Private companies are also making increasingly ambitious forays into space, both with and without government support. Some are currently launching astronauts to the ISS; others are preparing to send their own robotic landers to the moon.

“We’ve drawn the world into this pursuit,” says Charlie Bolden, a former NASA administrator. “Everybody's focused right now on getting back to the moon and getting on to Mars … As long as we can sustain that enthusiasm to get there, we’re going to be okay.”


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