After months of postponement, NASA still managed to send the unmanned Artemis-1 mission to the Moon. The SLS launch vehicle launched from the Kennedy Space Center early Wednesday morning and sent the Orion spacecraft on a 25-day trip to the Moon and back.
We are going.
— NASA (@NASA) November 16, 2022
Together, the two side boosters and four RS-25 engines produced a whopping 16,000 kilonewtons of thrust at launch, officially making the SLS the most powerful rocket in existence. It is capable of lifting more than 26 tons of cargo and crew to the Moon, and future configurations will allow it to lift even more (from 70 tons). The rocket, along with the Orion capsule, cost nearly $50 billion to develop, but these components are key to NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to establish a long-term human presence on and around the Moon.
The megarocket’s launch came 43 minutes after the start of the two-hour launch window, which opened at 1:04 a.m. ET. During the refueling of the acceleration unit, a hydrogen leak was detected, which required a team of specialists to go to the launch pad to tighten the bolts that had loosened.
A problem with the East Range radar, which is linked to the missile’s boarding system, caused a further delay, but the issue was resolved by replacing a faulty Ethernet cable. Preparations for the launch began around 1:35 a.m. EDT, and the “launch” command was given shortly thereafter. The suspended timer resumed at the T-10 minute mark, and SLS lifted off at 1:47 a.m. ET.
The SLS launch took place despite minor damage caused by Hurricane Nicole, which swept through the region last week. Strong winds ripped 3 meters of sealant off the gap between Orion’s launch abort system and the crew module adapter. Mission managers said earlier this week that much of the sealant, known as RTV (room-temperature vulcanizer), could fall off during launch, but they considered the consequences to be low risk.
Today’s launch went exactly as planned, with the side boosters and main stage falling off within the first 500 seconds of the mission, and Orion’s solar array deploying 20 minutes after launch. In four days, the unmanned spacecraft will reach the Moon, where it will spend 17 days orbiting Earth’s natural satellite. After another four-day trip home, Orion’s heat shield will have to withstand temperatures of up to 2,760 degrees Celsius as the spacecraft enters Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of up to 40,000 kilometers per hour.
It’s an exciting launch for Artemis-1, which will culminate with Orion’s atmospheric entry and fall in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday, December 11. If all goes according to plan, NASA can look forward to a manned Artemis-2 mission around the Moon, followed by Artemis-3, in which two astronauts will set foot on the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo program.