NASA’s new rocket, called the Space Launch System, or SLS, received a firehouse of criticism — much of it earned for the 322-foot-tall vehicle’s enormous, mounting costs. The rocket was supposed to launch years ago. As the much-anticipated flight finally drew close this year, engine problems and leaking fuel delayed the maiden voyage multiple times. Then hurricane season awoke, further pushing back the launch.
But at 1:48 a.m. ET on Nov. 16, the space agency started SLS’s thunderous engines and finally blasted the new megarocket into space. The mission, called Artemis I, hauled the agency’s latest lunar-bound spacecraft, Orion, which carried three mannequins on a looping journey around the moon. In the coming years, perhaps as soon as 2025, an Artemis mission may once again land astronauts on our natural satellite’s chalky surface.
Now the most powerful operational rocket on Earth, SLS will play an integral role in helping the U.S. establish a permanent presence on and around the moon over at least the next decade or so. (Commercial rockets will play a fundamental role, too.) SLS is an “evolvable” rocket, meaning it can be set up in six different ways as NASA sends supplies, lunar base materials, and astronauts to the moon.
“It’s a great pickup truck. I’m glad we built it. And I’m ready to fly,” John Blevins, the chief engineer for NASA’s SLS rocket, told Mashable earlier this year.
NASA completed the Artemis I mission on Dec. 11, after Orion braved 5,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures in Earth’s atmosphere and then splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, the rocket has both its supporters and detractors. But, crucially, SLS has the strong support of Congress — thanks to valuable jobs and contracts in many districts — so the rocket will continue to fly, even if the early flights cost $4.1 billion per launch.
Below are the stunning views from the historic, 25-day maiden voyage.
This is footage of the blastoff in the early hours of Nov. 16. As soon as all six engines ignite, the rocket’s massive thrust pushes down on Earth and begins to lift the vehicle. Thirty seconds in, SLS is flying at 128 mph. Eventually the rocket will travel over 21,000 mph.
Flight into space
NASA released dramatic footage of the megarocket’s flight into space from a camera aboard the rocket. In the video above, you can see events at just over two minutes into the journey from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Strapped to the side of the rocket’s core orange-colored booster are two powerful white side boosters. These are integral parts of the vehicle, because they provide 75 percent of SLS’s thrust, or force pushing down against Earth, during the first couple of minutes that SLS speeds through the atmosphere.
But after they’ve spent their fuel, the boosters dramatically (though safely) blast away from the rest of the rocket, which includes the Orion spacecraft that sits atop SLS.
These two boosters, standing at 17 stories tall, are potent. “These are the largest solid boosters ever built,” Blevins told Mashable.
After the boosters fell away to the Atlantic Ocean, the rocket’s orange booster, fitted with four RS-25 engines (which also powered NASA’s Space Shuttles), continued to propel the SLS rocket beyond Earth. Eventually, the Orion spacecraft broke away from this last booster and blasted its own engines on a trajectory toward the moon.
Looking back home
On Day 1 of the Artemis mission, a camera on Orion’s solar array snapped an image of Earth as the spaceship zoomed toward the moon. Already, Orion was 57,000 miles away.
The deeply cratered moon
Almost a week into the mission, the Orion capsule snapped images from just 80 miles above the lunar surface.
The views show the moon is a barren desert teeming with craters and hills. Crucially, NASA suspects some of the satellite’s craters contain bounties of water ice — a necessary resource for future deep space missions.
When a space rock slams into the moon, the impact crater often stays for billions of years, almost frozen in time. That’s because, unlike Earth, our lunar satellite has no weather to wash away the collision, nor intense geologic activity to blanket the surface in new rock.
On Day 13 of the mission, Orion’s orbit around the moon brought it 268,563 miles from Earth, a historic feat.
“Orion has now traveled farther than any other spacecraft built for humans,” NASA said.
In that orbit (called “distant retrograde orbit“), the spacecraft is flying some 40,000 miles above the lunar surface, enabling it to at times “look back” at our natural satellite and beyond, to Earth.
Almost three weeks into the journey, the Orion spacecraft fired its engines (which engineers call a “burn”) to swing nearby the moon, ultimately setting Orion on course to return to Earth. At the closest approach, Orion flew within 80 miles from the moon, allowing for detailed views of its craters and rugged terrain.
Below are views of the large craters Aristarchus and Herodotus. The meandering lines are likely collapsed lava tubes, which is a tunnel formed by underground lava flows. (Lava tubes are common in places like Hawaii. And, yes, the moon has a robust volcanic past, with eruptions happening within 100 million years ago, Science reports.)
After plummeting through Earth’s atmosphere, the Orion capsule parachuted down into the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11. The waiting Navy’s USS Portland, with NASA and Navy crew aboard, recovered the charred spacecraft.
Artemis I is in the bag. The first, major step of NASA’s ambitions to return to the moon is complete. Next up is Artemis II, which may launch as early as 2024. Two astronauts will be aboard this time, though they won’t land on the moon (that’s Artemis III).
“With Orion safely returned to Earth we can begin to see our next mission on the horizon which will fly crew to the Moon for the first time as a part of the next era of exploration,” Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “This begins our path to a regular cadence of missions and a sustained human presence at the Moon for scientific discovery and to prepare for human missions to Mars.”