Following many high-profile delays due to hardware and storms, a massive rocket bearing NASA emblems lifted off from Florida on Wednesday, beginning a month-long voyage to the moon that harkens back to the Apollo days, more than 50 years ago.
The multibillion-dollar Space Launch System’s four main engines and two solid rocket boosters ignited at Kennedy Space Center at 1:47 a.m. EST, producing a combined thrust of 8.8 million pounds. This makes the Space Launch System the most powerful operational rocket in the world. With this flight, SLS made its third attempt at liftoff, and its first under NASA’s Artemis program.
The Orion capsule on top of the rocket started erecting its solar panels less than 20 minutes into flight, marking the beginning of a 26-day journey to lunar orbit with no human crew. Orion’s liftoff toward the moon, or translunar injection, occurred just after 3:30 a.m. EST with assistance from the upper stage produced by United Launch Alliance.
After the successful launch of the Artemis spacecraft, NASA’s launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson informed the crowded Launch Control Center, “It is not by luck that you are here today.” I want you to take a good hard look at this squad and realize that you deserve this. You deserve to be here; you deserve to be recognized; you deserve to be a part of history.
Blackwell-Thompson said, “You are a part of a first that doesn’t come around very often – once in a career, maybe.” But you should know that you’re all a part of something really historic: Artemis’s first launch. The first phase of our national return to space.
Successful completion of Artemis I, NASA’s first demonstration flight under the program, will pave the way for a second mission before 2025. Assuming launch plans remain on track, the Artemis II mission would have a similar flight profile to Wednesday’s launch, but will involve the transportation of humans in the Orion spacecraft. Then, before 2030, Artemis III will try to land two humans on the surface.
However, the buildup to the 50th launch of the year from the Space Coast was a tale unto itself.
In August and September, managers attempted, but were unable owing to technical problems at pad 39B, namely with loading liquid hydrogen into the rocket’s huge, Boeing-built core stage. While NASA seemed to have everything under control, storms Ian and Nicole plowed into Florida, forcing the agency to move the rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building in order to escape Ian and inflicting some minor damage to the Orion capsule.
Although Nicole only removed a little amount of caulk-like material from Orion, she did raise concerns that more may break loose during flight and hit other parts of the rocket. The loss-of-mission risk was originally predicted at 1 in 125, but officials claimed the soft, malleable material would not significantly boost that number.
Everything seemed well leading up to Tuesday night’s count, when a little hydrogen leak was discovered. SLS was almost ready for takeoff, but a leaking hydrogen top-off line at the rocket’s base prevented it from taking off. NASA plans to use supercooled liquid hydrogen and oxygen as SLS propellants.
NASA decided to do something quite unusual for space travel, sending personnel into a blast danger area (BDA) to repair hardware within feet from a pressurized ship that can contain 733,000 gallons of energy-dense propellants. The “red team” of three technicians swooped in, secured a hydrogen fill line’s nuts, and then left the pad without incident.
Artemis I could not have taken to the skies on Wednesday without the help of the red team, which consisted of Trent Annis, Billy Cairns, and Chad Garrett.
Annis, a worker in cryogenic engineering, reflected on the launch in an interview with NASA TV. “The rocket seems to be conscious; it’s producing cracking and venting sounds and generally evoking a fright. My coronary veins were racing.
Cairns, a fellow cryogenic specialist, had been part of the red team crew for 37 years before being called into action on Wednesday to assist plug the leak. As part of Jacobs’ Test and Operations Support Contract at KSC, both were supervised by Garrett, their safety engineer.
We made an appearance today. The moment we climbed those steps, we were ready to go,” Annis added.
Once the hole was patched, however, another problem surfaced: late in the countdown, communication was lost with a vital radar monitoring station. Since the station is part of a larger system meant to destroy a rocket in the event of an emergency, known as the flight termination system (FTS), that would have also resulted in a scrub.
The malfunctioning component at the Space Force-run station was identified as a piece of networking equipment. After the new part was installed and tested, mission management gave the go-ahead to launch at 1:47 a.m., which was 43 minutes later than originally scheduled.