Nasa’s Artemis 1, most powerful rocket in history, blasts off to moon

Successful launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida follows scuppered attempts in August and September

Two hurricanes, two months and a number of technical fixes since previous launch attempts were thwarted, and Nasa’s Artemis 1, the most powerful space rocket in history, is finally on course for the moon after lifting off from Florida early on Wednesday.

The spacecraft, comprising the mighty Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and pioneering Orion capsule, lit the night sky as it rose from its Cape Canaveral launchpad at 1.47am ET. The 25-day, 1.3m-mile journey to the moon and back is Nasa’s first crew-capable deep-space mission for half a century.

“On behalf of all the men and women across our great nation who have worked to bring this hardware together to make this day possible, and for the Artemis generation, this is for you,” the launch director, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, said shortly after liftoff.

It was the first time that the Nasa SLS rocket and Nasa Orion have flown together. “Artemis I begins a new chapter in human lunar exploration,” the Space agency tweeted.

No astronauts are aboard the Artemis 1 test flight. But it does contain three mannequins and a Snoopy soft toy gauging radiation levels and testing new life-preservation systems and equipment designed for the next generation of long-duration human spaceflight.

Success of the mission, which will culminate in a Pacific ocean splashdown on 11 December, is crucial to the Artemis 2 and 3 flights that will follow. Both will ferry humans to and from the moon, with the latter, scheduled for 2025 but expected to slip back a year, being the first crewed lunar landing since Apollo 17 in December 1972.

Artemis 3 will add a woman’s name to the only 12 moonwalkers in history – all men from the Apollo flights between 1969 and 1972. A subsequent mission of Artemis, in Greek mythology the twin sister of Apollo, will land the first person of color, the space agency says.

While the Apollo missions provided humanity’s first hands-on look at our nearest celestial body, much more than basic exploration is driving Nasa’s return.

“Why the moon?” Nasa administrator Bill Nelson told the Guardian last year. “Because the goal is Mars. What we can do on the moon is learn how to exist and survive in that hostile environment and only be three or four days away from Earth before we venture out and are months and months from Earth.

“That’s the whole purpose: we go back to the moon, we learn how to live there, we create habitats.”

Nasa wants to establish a long-term human presence, including construction of a lunar base camp, as groundwork for crewed missions to Mars by the mid-2030s. Its wider Moon to Mars vision includes commercial partners such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the heavy-lift Starship rocket that could be ready for its first orbital test flight as soon as next month.

Interactive

First, though, Nasa must prove after a 50-year gap that it is up to the challenge of sending vehicles into deep space and returning them safely to Earth.

Wednesday’s launch followed scuppered attempts in August and September. Those were scrapped after engineers discovered an engine cooling problem, then were unable to fix what was reported as an unrelated fuel leak, but which was later traced to a faulty sensor.

Nasa’s hope of trying in early October was curbed when the threat of Hurricane Ian forced the space agency to roll the giant $4.1bn rocket back to its hangar.

Artemis returned to the launchpad on 4 November, and remained there last week through 100mph gusts from Hurricane Nicole. Mission managers gave a final go-ahead for launch after conducting “minor” repairs on electrical systems, and determining a torn strip of silicone weather covering was not a show-stopper.

Jim Free, Nasa’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, said there had been a robust debate about pressing forward with Wednesday’s launch.

“Even at the final decision poll there was discussion about, ‘Hey, let’s make sure we’re understanding and talking through all the issues,’” he told reporters.

“I can tell you that the team absolutely did that. The group that cares the most about this rocket is the group making those decisions. I would never expect, nor have I ever heard, any overconfidence or cavalier nature.”

Orion launched atop the most powerful rocket ever built, with 8.8 million pounds of thrust, 1.3 million greater than the Saturn V behemoths of the Apollo era.

Artemis will fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans, Nasa says. It will travel 280,000 miles (450,000km) from Earth, and 40,000 miles (64,000km) beyond the far side of the moon.

Orion will also stay in space longer than any human spacecraft has without docking to a space station, and return home faster and hotter than ever before.

Contributor

Richard Luscombe in Miami

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Artemis 1: crowds flock to watch Nasa’s most powerful rocket blast off to the moon
Megarocket to lift off from Florida on Monday morning, one of final crucial test steps before astronauts’ return to the moon

Richard Luscombe in Cape Canaveral, Florida

28, Aug, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Nasa’s Artemis 1 rocket launch called off because of engine problem – as it happened
‘Conditioning issue’ with one of four engines on rocket’s main stage means scheduled launch called off with next attempt 2 September – follow live

Richard Luscombe in Cape Canaveral

29, Aug, 2022 @1:11 PM

Article image
Nasa calls off Artemis 1 moon rocket launch for second time after fuel leak
Head of US space agency suggests maiden test flight will probably be delayed until the middle of October

Richard Luscombe in Cape Canaveral

03, Sep, 2022 @5:12 PM

Article image
Nasa shows off 'most powerful space rocket in history'

Space launch system – which could cost more than $60bn – plans to take humans on their first mission to Mars

Richard Luscombe in Miami

14, Sep, 2011 @4:44 PM

Article image
Artemis 1: Nasa cancels moon mission launch over engine problem
US space agency technicians working against the clock to correct ‘engine bleed’ in time for possible rescheduled lift-off on Friday

Richard Luscombe in Cape Canaveral, Florida

29, Aug, 2022 @9:59 PM

Article image
Artemis 1: Nasa’s moon rocket springs hazardous leak ahead of launch
Fuel leak comes after Nasa fixed an engine issue that postponed the original launch attempt five days earlier

Richard Luscombe

03, Sep, 2022 @3:08 PM

Article image
Artemis 1: ‘conditioning issue’ forces Nasa rocket launch postponement
Problem with one of four rockets calls halt to Monday’s scheduled launch, with next attempt due on 2 September

Guardian staff

29, Aug, 2022 @12:50 PM

Article image
Nasa’s rocket launch to the moon next week aims to close 50-year gap
Nasa’s rocket Artemis is going to launch again – but why exactly are we going to the moon again?

Richard Luscombe in Miami

13, Nov, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Falcon Heavy, world's most powerful rocket, launches – as it happened
A heavy-duty rocket from Elon Musk’s private company launches for the first time and aims to make spaceflight cheaper and easier

Alan Yuhas

06, Feb, 2018 @10:33 PM

Article image
Falcon Heavy: Elon Musk's giant SpaceX rocket makes triumphant launch
SpaceX rocket lifts off on trailblazing deep space mission that Musk believes could spell ‘game over’ for commercial rivals

Richard Luscombe at Cape Canaveral

06, Feb, 2018 @10:43 PM