NASA's new Moon rocket blasted off on its test flight with three dummies aboard early on Wednesday, bringing the United States a big step closer to putting astronauts back on the lunar surface for the first time in 50 years.
If all goes well during the three-week flight, the rocket will propel an empty crew capsule into a wide orbit around the Moon, before the capsule returns to Earth with a splashdown in the Pacific in December.
After years of delays and billions in cost overruns, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket thundered skyward, rising from Kennedy Space Center on 4 million kg of thrust and hitting 160 km/h within seconds.
"I'm telling you, we've never seen such a tail of flame," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who followed the launch with a group of astronauts.
"There were a bunch there that would like to be on that rocket and I have to say, for what we saw tonight, it's an A-plus," he said.
Despite some concerns over the damage the $4.1-billion-dollar Space Launch System (SLS) vehicle and Orion spacecraft experienced due to Hurricane Nicole, NASA is moving forward with its current launch attempt. Artemis 1 is currently counting down to a two-hour launch window which begins on Wednesday (Nov. 16) at 1:04 a.m. EST (0604 GMT). You can watch the launch live online here on Space.com courtesy of NASA.
Live event coverage of the Artemis 1 countdown and launch will air on Space.com courtesy of NASA Television, the NASA mobile app(opens in new tab), and the agency's official website. Broadcasting of prelaunch activities starts at 3:30 p.m. EST (2030 GMT) when the agency begins the Space Launch System's cryogenic fueling process.
Artemis 1 was originally scheduled to launch in late August, but glitches with fueling caused a one-month delay. Then came Hurricane Ian, which caused further delays as NASA rolled the Artemis 1 SLS stack off of Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for the shelter of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). After being rolled out to the pad once more on Nov. 4, SLS then had to weather Hurricane Nicole, which subjected the vehicle to high winds while it weakened to a tropical storm shortly after landfall.
Despite the fact that the SLS vehicle and Orion spacecraft experienced some slight damage during Hurricane Nicole, NASA officials are confident in their decision to aim for the Nov. 16 launch attempt. "There's no change in our plan to attempt to launch on the 16th," Mike Sarafin, Artemis mission manager at NASA headquarters in Washington, said during a media teleconference Monday (Nov. 14) after performing analyses of the damage.
One of the chief areas of concern is a thin strip of insulative caulking known as RTV that smooths out a small groove encircling the Orion spacecraft in order to prevent undesirable airflow and heating during flight. A section of RTV was torn loose by Nicole's winds, and there are now worries that more could shake loose during liftoff and create a debris hazard for SLS.
The Artemis 1 mission team has been analyzing the risks associated with the damaged RTV at the same time the massive countdown timer here at KSC continues to tick down to the Nov. 16 launch window.
"The unanimous recommendation for the team was that we were in a good position to go ahead and proceed with the launch countdown," Jeremy Parsons, deputy manager of NASA's Exploration Ground Systems program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said during a media teleconference on Monday (Nov. 14).
Artemis 1 will be the maiden voyage for SLS, and the second flight for the Orion capsule after a test flight atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket in 2014. If all goes according to plan, the mission will be the first in NASA's new lunar exploration program that will see astronauts orbit the moon with a crewed Artemis 2 launch in 2024, and will put humans back on the moon near the lunar south pole with Artemis 3 in 2025 or 2026.
Artemis 1 will last nearly 26 days when it launches, ending with the Orion capsule splashing down in the Pacific Ocean after reentering Earth's atmosphere at 25,000 mph (40,200 km/h).