TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Following the successful launch of NASA’s most powerful rocket in the world — the Space Launch System (SLS) — the public space agency’s Orion spacecraft is on its way to the moon, marking the first such mission in 50 years.
Carrying an uncrewed Orion capsule, NASA’s SLS rocket lifted off at 1:47 a.m. Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center for its maiden flight test debut.
The launch marked the first leg of a mission that is planned to take the Orion space capsule approximately 40,000 miles beyond the Moon and return to Earth over the course of 25.5 days, NASA said Wednesday.
Known as Artemis I, the mission marked a critical part of NASA’s “Moon to Mars exploration approach,” and served as a bridge to the agency’s later plans to fly astronauts on the Artemis II mission.
“What an incredible sight to see NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft launch together for the first time,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “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.”
After reaching an initial orbit around the Earth, Orion deployed its solar arrays providing engineers and many around the world with a stunning view of the blue planet.
“This view of Earth captured from a human-rated spacecraft not seen since 1972 during the final Apollo mission some 50 years ago,” a NASA representative said in a live-streamed event Wednesday. “The views of our blue marble in the blackness of space now capturing the imagination of a new generation. The Artemis generation.”
On its website, NASA stated, “Over the next several hours, a series of 10 small science investigations and technology demonstrations, called CubeSats, will deploy from a ring that connected the upper stage to the spacecraft.” The space agency added, “each CubeSat has its own mission that has the potential to fill gaps in our knowledge of the solar system or demonstrate technologies that may benefit the design of future missions to explore the Moon and beyond.”
Orion is expected to fly by the Moon on Nov. 21, where it will perform a close approach of the lunar surface on its way to a distant retrograde orbit — a highly stable orbit thousands of miles beyond the Moon.
“It’s taken a lot to get here, but Orion is now on its way to the Moon,” said Jim Free, NASA deputy associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate. “This successful launch means NASA and our partners are on a path to explore farther in space than ever before for the benefit of humanity.”
The SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft arrived at Kennedy’s Launch Pad on Nov. 4 where it endured Hurricane Nicole. Following the storm, teams assessed the rocket and associated ground systems and confirmed there were no significant impacts from the weather.
Weeks ahead of the Nov. 16 launch, the rocket was returned to the Vehicle Assembly Building on Sept. 26 before Hurricane Ian slammed much of Florida’s southwest coast. before that, NASA waved off two previous launch attempts due to a faulty temperature sensor and a liquid hydrogen leak on Aug. 29 and Sept. 4 respectively.