KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.—The skies were favorable through the wee hours of Wednesday morning as the Artemis I mission ticked its final seconds to launch.
Ten, nine, eight seconds…
Shining brightly near the southern horizon was the constellation Orion, namesake of NASA’s new spacecraft.
Seven, six, five…
A crescent moon hung almost directly above the launch tower, the destination of the Artemis I mission.
Four, three, two and one…
Suddenly the nightlights were not coming from the stars that poked the night sky, nor from the fat moon above us. Rather, the rocket roared to life, its huge solid rocket boosters pushing it upwards. As the rocket lifted off, it left behind a huge exhaust column reminiscent of Jack’s giant beanstalk. Seconds after launch, the sound and fury and acoustic energy of the Space Launch System thundered out.
For a moment it was deafening. And then it was gone.
But the rocket pushed further and upward, sending its payload, the Orion spacecraft and its service module, toward the moon. For the first time in more than half a century, a human-carrying spacecraft is on its way back to the moon. The next time it flies, there will be four astronauts on board.
A big win
It’s been a long time since NASA’s human spaceflight program has tasted such institutional success.
The U.S. space agency hadn’t launched an orbital rocket since 2011, when NASA flew its legendary space shuttle for the last time. In addition, NASA had not flown new ones orbital rocket into space since the shuttle’s debut in 1981. So on Wednesday morning, remarkably, NASA flew its first new rocket in more than four decades.
The years since the space shuttle retired have been rather lean years for the space agency in some ways. For a while, NASA had to battle the public perception that with the end of the shuttle and the end of NASA’s ability to send astronauts into space, the agency itself had closed its doors. This didn’t help when Americans realized that the only way for American astronauts to reach space was to launch a Russian rocket from the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan.
In addition, over the past decade, NASA has faced fierce criticism that its human-powered spacecraft, the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft, were vastly overpriced and far behind schedule. There is no question that they were, and this was partly due to NASA’s management. The only way NASA could answer these critics was to put their heads down, work harder, and fly safely.
All of this contributed to a midlife crisis of sorts for the agency, which was once the world’s darling, in the 2010s. While it still retains some of this global popularity, NASA’s struggles and delays since the end of the shuttle have made the reality that NASA is a long way from the young, nimble agency that took less than a decade to land humans on the moon in the 1960s.
The agency also had to explain why it is now, more than half a century later, going back to the moon. Didn’t we go there and didn’t we? The Artemis II mission, which will fly four astronauts around the moon, is very similar to Apollo 8. And the Artemis III mission won’t be much different from the Apollo 11 landing.
This time is otherwise of course. NASA will send its astronauts to the South Pole instead of the middle latitudes because there may be ice there. And the agency has plans to conduct long missions on the lunar surface and perhaps eventually build a settlement. NASA wants to do all this lunar exploration more sustainably, with the help of commercial spaceflight companies like SpaceX to reduce costs and harness powerful new capabilities. And since the astronauts spend time on the moon, they may learn enough about the lunar environment and life in deep space to make missions to Mars a viable next step.
But this is very hard to explain when you have a rocket that looks a lot like the Saturn V, and a spacecraft that looks like an Apollo capsule, and you use them to fly back to the moon.
It’s getting easier to explain now. For a decade or so, NASA has had to talk about all the great things its deep space exploration program would accomplish. It’s so much easier to show people what you can do, rather than telling them what you’re going to do. And now NASA can point to this mission, and the upcoming Orion flight, as the first steps toward a bigger vision. That’s powerful, perhaps more powerful than the 8.8 million pounds of thrust blasting off the launch pad Wednesday morning.
If all goes well, Orion will spend about 25.5 days in space, testing the service module’s propulsion system and its ability to survive a long spaceflight before crashing into the Pacific Ocean on December 11.
NASA is back.