Nearly 50 years after the last astronauts walked on the Moon, the most powerful rocket ever built lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center shortly before 2 a.m. EDT on November 16.
Astronauts visited the Moon during six missions and have not returned since December 1972. This time NASA and international partners plan to stay, thanks to the Artemis missions.
“This uncrewed flight test will push Orion to the limits in the rigors of deep space, helping us prepare for human exploration on the Moon and, ultimately, Mars,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement.
During a morning press conference, he said the launch is a test flight for that return trip. The next mission, in 2024, will task four astronauts with orbiting the Moon. One of these astronauts will be a Canadian, making Canada the second nation to send a human into lunar orbit.
The long-term goal is to assemble the Lunar Gateway space station in lunar orbit, and create smaller outposts on the Moon’s surface. These missions will eventually help plan future crewed missions to Mars.
François-Philippe Champagne, the federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, praised the successful launch in a statement. He said he was excited for the role future missions will have for Canadian astronauts, engineers, and scientists.
“Fifty years after the end of the Apollo program, humanity is going back to the Moon and Canada is in the front seat of this thrilling journey.”
The Artemis mission was originally meant to begin in late August, but was delayed by technical issues. Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole delayed it twice more. On launch day, engineers were forced to deal with more glitches and an intermittent hydrogen leak. And a team had to enter the rocket’s blast zone and tighten bolts around a valve. Afterwards, the launch of the 98-metre tall Space Launch System (SLS) was flawless.
The SLS was propelled by a liquid fuel core stage and two solid fuel booster rockets. The boosters spent their fuel and were jettisoned two minutes after launch. The core stage separated six minutes later. Eight minutes after the SLS launched, the Orion spacecraft was in Earth’s orbit for more than an hour as it completed a final system review and deployed solar panels. An 18-minute burn broke Orion away from the Earth’s gravity for a rendez-vous with the Moon.
Orion will spend the next few days deploying CubeSats on its way to the Moon. These small satellites will test environmental and biological experiments, to help engineers design systems for keeping people in space for long-term missions.
When the spacecraft arrives in lunar orbit, it will spend approximately six days collecting data on the spacecraft’s performance. Orion will stay in a retrograde orbit that takes it between 100 kilometres and 70,000 kilometres above the Moon’s surface.
When it comes time to return home, Orion’s engines will fire and use the Moon’s gravity to propel itself towards Earth. Orion will enter the atmosphere 32 times faster than the speed of sound and splash down in the Pacific Ocean. The entire mission will take roughly 25 days.
“This is just the test flight and we are stressing it and testing it in ways that we will not do to a rocket that has a human crew on it,” said Nelson at a press conference after the launch. “But 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.”
At a watch-party at the CSA’s headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Québec, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques said the launch reminded him of how the early Apollo missions inspired him. He said Artemis would do the same for the next generation of astronauts.
“This is the first step of a long adventure. Like I was part of the Apollo generation like so many people, and I think we’re seeing the beginning of the Artemis generation and it will motivate and inspire a whole new generation of explorers.”