Artemis I has launched today, November 16, at 1:47 am EST (6:47 am UTC) from the historic Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. This marks the first flight of NASA's Orion spacecraft and massive Space Launch System (SLS), now the most powerful rocket ever sent to orbit. While the excitement for successfully jumping this first hurdle is palpable, this is just the beginning of the mission that will test the craft's capabilities for safely returning humans to the Moon.
The Space Launch System has a thrust equivalent to 14 jumbo jets. It is made of a core stage and two solid rocket boosters. The latter burned for approximately two minutes, taking the rocket through the period of greatest atmospheric force. As it reaches the upper atmosphere, the Orion capsule is left with the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS). ICPS will be responsible for placing the spacecraft into the trans-lunar injection, the special orbit needed to orbit around the Moon.
Orion, which is loaded with cubesats, communication devices, and experiments from a multitude of research institutes, will fly in space for 25 days, 11 hours, and 36 minutes and will spend six of those days in a retrograde orbit around the Moon. Its odometer will tally 2.1 million kilometers (1.3 million miles) by the end of the trip, and you can track it here. Orion will travel farther than any other spacecraft designed for humans, reaching as far as 450,000 kilometers (280,000 miles) from Earth, and up to 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) beyond the far side of the Moon.
The expected splashdown date is December 11 in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego.
All of this is to test the spacecraft to the limit to make sure it is ready to accommodate a human crew in just two years' time. Artemis II, launching in May 2024, will see humans return to deep space for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972. The Artemis Team will consist of four astronauts who will fly around the Moon for up to 21 days further testing the spacecraft. One of the four astronauts will be Canadian and the rest have been confirmed to be American.
Following Artemis II will be Artemis III, which will see the first woman and first person of color putting their feet on the surface of the Moon. The return of human exploration to the lunar surface depends on the successful tests of Artemis I and II but also on the production of key technologies such as new spacesuits and SpaceX’s Starship, which will be used as a lunar landing vehicle. The Artemis III launch is expected towards the end of 2025 but it is likely that it will shift further into 2026.