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Highlights From NASA’s Artemis Moon Rocket Launch

The uncrewed mission overcame scrubbed launches, hurricanes and late launchpad drama to kick off a key test of America’s ability to send astronauts back to the moon.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — NASA’s majestic new rocket soared into space for the first time in the early hours of Wednesday, lighting up the night sky and accelerating on a journey that will take an astronaut-less capsule around the moon and back.

“We are all part of something incredibly special,” Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the launch director, said to her team at the Kennedy Space Center after the launch. “The first launch of Artemis. The first step in returning our country to the moon and on to Mars.”

For NASA, the mission ushers in a new era of lunar exploration, one that seeks to unravel scientific mysteries in the shadows of craters in the polar regions, test technologies for dreamed-of journeys to Mars and spur private enterprise to chase new entrepreneurial frontiers farther out in the solar system.

“If you were serious about going back to the moon, you would just go all-in on commercial approaches,” said Charles Miller, who worked at NASA from 2009 to 2012 as a senior adviser for commercial space activities.

But the commercial approach might not exactly provide what NASA and other government decision makers want, and companies can often change plans or go out of business.

While it may not have mollified the critics, the 322-foot-tall rocket, known as the Space Launch System, or S.L.S., was an imposing sight on the launchpad. However, with the middle-of-the-night launch time, the Florida Space Coast was not as jammed with spectators as it had been for earlier launch attempts.

Wednesday’s launch attempt followed two scrubbed launch attempts in August and September, one halted by an engine that appeared to be too warm, and the other involving a hydrogen leak in a fuel line. Hurricane Ian led NASA to skip another launch window in late September and early October, and Hurricane Nicole prompted a delay by a couple of days before Wednesday’s launch.

The countdown proceeded smoothly until a hydrogen leak in a new location popped up at about 9:15 p.m. A “red crew” of two technicians and a safety officer went to the launchpad to tighten bolts on a valve, which stemmed the leak.

A faulty Ethernet switch also disrupted the countdown, cutting off data from a radar needed to track the rocket. The U.S. Space Force, which ensures safety of rocket launches from the Kennedy Space Center, replaced the equipment, and the countdown resumed.

A final poll by Ms. Blackwell-Thompson confirmed the rocket was ready to go to space.

At 1:47 a.m., the four engines on the rocket’s core stage ignited, along with two skinnier side boosters. As the countdown hit zero, clamps holding the rocket down let go, and the vehicle slipped Earth’s bonds.

At liftoff, flames from the engines were incredibly bright, like giant welding torches.

“I’m telling you we’d never seen such a tail of flame,” Mr. Nelson said.

As the rocket ascended, it produced a loud rumble of sound that rolled across the space center.

A few minutes later, the side boosters and then the giant core stage separated. The rocket’s upper engine then ignited to carry the Orion spacecraft, where astronauts will sit during later missions, toward orbit.

Less than two hours after launch, the upper stage fired one last time to send Orion on a path toward the moon. On Monday, Orion will pass within about 60 miles of the moon’s surface. After going around the moon for a couple of weeks, Orion will head back to Earth, splashing down on Dec. 11 in the Pacific Ocean, about 60 miles off the coast of California.

“We’ve laid the foundation for the Artemis program and many generations to come,” said John Honeycutt, the program manager for the Space Launch System rocket, in a news conference after the launch on Wednesday.

The next Artemis mission, which is to take four astronauts on a journey around the moon but not to the surface, will launch no earlier than 2024. Artemis III, in which two astronauts will land near the moon’s south pole, is currently scheduled for 2025, though that date is very likely to slip further into the future.

By streamlining the manufacturing, “We’re hoping to get it to a cost of about $2 billion,” per launch, Sharon Cobb, the associate program manager at NASA for the Space Launch System, said during an interview in August.

For Artemis, NASA has taken a mix-and-match approach — a traditional program for the rocket and the crew capsule, and a commercial strategy for the lunar lander. NASA is purchasing from SpaceX, at a fixed price, a flight of Starship to serve as the lander for the Artemis III mission later in the decade. The Starship is to dock with Orion in orbit around the moon and take two astronauts to the surface near the lunar south pole.

The delays and cost overruns of S.L.S. and Orion highlight the shortcomings of how NASA has managed its programs, but Mr. Musk’s company, for all of the impressive technological leaps it has made so far, is also not guaranteed to solve all the development challenges of Starship as quickly as Mr. Musk might hope.

His company has been fantastically successful with its Falcon 9 rocket, following on NASA’s investment to take cargo and later astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The cargo contract provided a key infusion of money to Mr. Musk’s company, and bestowed NASA’s imprimatur of approval when SpaceX was still little known and largely unproven. It now dominates the satellite-launching business.

For NASA, this was a big win, too. Because NASA is just one of many customers for SpaceX, SpaceX can offer much lower costs.

Those successes, however, do not guarantee that Starship will also succeed. If SpaceX stumbles, NASA’s gamble on the company’s new spacecraft risks leaving the United States wasting its investment while still waiting for a moon lander for Artemis III.

Still, the sprawling expense of Artemis might be the cost of sustaining political support for a space program in a federal democracy, said Casey Dreier, the chief policy adviser for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit that promotes exploration of space. Even if Artemis is not the best or most efficient design, it provides jobs to the employees of NASA and aerospace companies across the country, he said. That provides continuing political support for the moon program.

“Congress has done nothing but add more money to Artemis every single year it’s been in existence,” Mr. Dreier said.

Politicians have so far faced little or no public outcry when voting to finance the Artemis missions. Even if it saved NASA money, the commercial approach could provoke greater opposition, feeding a perception that the agency has outsourced its space program to billionaires like Mr. Musk; Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon who started the rocket company Blue Origin; and Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic flies tourists on short suborbital flights.

“By aligning our space program with very famous, idiosyncratic individuals, that could potentially be the bigger political risk, to me,” Mr. Dreier said.

Commercial space advocates argue that history does not back up this dystopian view. Rather, they point to entrepreneurs a century ago who transformed aviation from a luxury available to only a few into safe, affordable transportation for almost everyone.

NASA is currently negotiating with the rocket’s manufacturers for up to 20 more launches.

“I think the program itself is shaping up to be very politically sustainable,” Mr. Dreier said. “I challenge people to show me the public anger about the S.L.S. program and how it translates to political pressure to cancel it. And I just don’t see it.”

By the end of this decade, humans could walk on the moon once again. Here’s how NASA plans to send them there.

NASA has concluded its camera views from the Orion capsule and that will also wrap up our live analysis of this stage of the Artemis I mission. Sign up for reminders on your personal digital calendar for more Artemis updates and reminders of other events: nytimes.com/spacecalendar

Cameras on the Orion capsule captured the spacecraft’s first “blue marble” image of the Earth at a distance of more than 50,000 miles. Some time in the coming days, Orion will share its first glimpses of the moon.

In moments NASA will begin showing imagery of the Earth from the Orion capsule while it is traveling toward the moon. Watch the video in the YouTube player embedded above.

Artemis I is not the only mission to the moon this year. Two spacecraft have already launched, taking slow, gradual paths that will save fuel.

Other private companies could follow ispace to the lunar surface in 2023. They include Intuitive Machines of Houston and Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh. Those missions are part of a launch series sponsored by NASA known as Commercial Lunar Payload Services. With the program, NASA is trying to kick start private sector investments in lunar landings.

Two countries, India and Russia, have postponed their planned robotic moon landings this year. They could both try in 2023.

The Orion capsule has completed its engine burn lasting about 30 seconds and adjusted its course toward the moon. It also demonstrated its ability to maneuver itself using the engine with its attached service module, which was built by NASA’s European partners. In about an hour, the spacecraft will send back more views of the Earth as it continues its journey.

Five, four, three, two, one, ignition. We have liftoff. Acknowledge software. FC2 please prepare for Section 35, OAC, SE1 and LVN.

The next time American astronauts land on the moon, they will be stepping out of a spacecraft built by SpaceX. (The SpaceX lander is so big — as tall as a 16-story building — that the astronauts will not so much be stepping out as taking an elevator down to the surface.)

For several years, SpaceX has been working on Starship, a stainless steel behemoth that would be the most powerful rocket ever built. Together with a booster stage, it will stand nearly 400 feet high, taller than the Statue of Liberty and its pedestal.

Starship will also — unlike any previous orbital rocket — be entirely reusable. That fact has the potential to cut the cost of sending payloads to orbit — less than $10 million to take 100 tons to space, Elon Musk, the company’s founder, has said.

While Mr. Musk first set out to build Starship with eventual trips to Mars in mind, NASA will use a version of the rocket to ferry astronauts from orbit around the moon to its surface. Beating out two competitors, SpaceX won a $2.9 billion contract for the mission, Artemis III.

The lunar mission will require about 10 Starship launches. First, SpaceX plans to launch a propellant depot version of Starship — think of it as a gas station — into orbit around Earth. Then a tanker Starship filled with liquid oxygen and liquid methane propellants will sidle up to the propellant depot Starship. Once the tanker has transferred its load, it will return to Earth.

According to Mr. Musk, no more than eight Starship tanker flights are needed to fill up the propellant depot. Then, the lunar lander Starship will launch from Earth, meet up with the propellant depot and fill its tanks before departing for lunar orbit. There, it will wait for the arrival of four astronauts riding in NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

When Orion and Starship dock above the moon, two astronauts will move to Starship and head to the luanr south polar region, while the other two will stay in orbit on the Orion spacecraft.

Starship and the two moon-walking astronauts will spend about a week on the surface. They will then blast off to dock again with Orion, and Orion will take the astronauts back to Earth. SpaceX has not said what it plans do with the lunar lander Starship once its NASA mission is complete.

On Monday, SpaceX conducted a test of the booster for Starship, firing 14 of the engines at once. Mr. Musk suggested on Twitter that the orbital test launch is not far off.

Next test is ~20 sec firing with max oxygen fill to test autogenous pressurization, possibly one more static fire, then orbital launch attempt

The Orion capsule is preparing for an engine burn that will adjust its trajectory to the moon. You can follow it in the YouTube video player embedded above.

The red crew members were Trent Annis, Billy Cairns and Chad Garrett, and they did something dangerous and risky when they performed live repairs to fix a leak on a fueled rocket. For them, it was another day at the office, if the office was a thing that could reduce you to nothing more than a memory in an unfortunate instant.

“All I can say is we were very excited,” Mr. Annis said in an interview on NASA TV after the launch. “I was ready to get up there and go.”

When a rocket is filled with propellants, human beings usually aim to be as far away as possible. A rocket in the best of circumstances is a controlled chemical reaction that lifts tons of material to space on a tower of fire. On its worst day, it is an explosive catastrophe that incinerates anything that gets too close.

So it was surprising on Tuesday during the launch countdown when Derrol Nail, the commentator on NASA’s live video feed, announced that real human beings were headed to the launchpad. Their goal was to fix parts on the Space Launch System, which was leaking hydrogen and threatening to ground the rocket — which by then had been packed full of huge quantities of explosive liquid hydrogen.

The red crew members and their minders drove up to the launchpad in a pair of white — not red — vehicles. Three characters in dark — again, not red — clothing ascended a part of the launch tower and got to work.

“We were very focused on what was happening up there,” Mr. Annis said in the post-launch interview. “It’s creaking, it’s making venting noises, it’s pretty scary.”

The precise work was unfamiliar to anyone who was not a rocket engineer. Mr. Nail described a need to “torque” something he described as “packing nuts.” On Twitter, NASA explained that bolts needed to be tightened because the valves they controlled might have been leaking.

While advanced technology is helpful, “there are also times when you’ve just got to put a wrench on a nut,” said Mike Bolger, the Exploration Ground Systems program manager at Kennedy Space Center, during a post-launch news conference on Wednesday.

Engineers in launch control then tested the valves, and whatever the red crew actually did worked. The leak had stopped. The loading of hydrogen into the rocket resumed.

While the red crew’s derring-do on Tuesday night was something, their work was not without precedent. A NASA spokeswoman highlighted the role such a group played in responding to a similar leak more than 50 years ago.

“We have sent a team of three technicians and a safety man to the pad and these technicians are now tightening bolts around the valve,” said a launch control commentator according to a NASA transcript from 1969. “Once the technicians depart, we will send hydrogen again through the system to assure that the leak has been corrected.”

The mission was Apollo 11, and the repair contributed to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins making it to the moon.

Hours after their brief visit to the launchpad, the Artemis I mission rocket was on its way to the moon, and the Red Team was on the ground, discussing its deeds with NASA’s on-air team. They highlighted that Mr. Cairns had been working on red crews for 37 years but it was his first time going to the launchpad in such a dangerous circumstance. Mr. Annis said during the interview that he had yet to fully appreciate his contribution to the mission.

“I still can’t believe it,” he said. “It’s surreal to me, just insane.”

Kayla Barron, an astronaut who has served aboard the International Space Station and provided on-air commentary for NASA for Wednesday’s launch, said that the three men’s experience shows how space exploration is a “team sport.”

“I think you guys perfectly demonstrated that today,” she said. “None of us could have accomplished this on our own.”

An earlier version of this article misstated when the red crew was talking to NASA interviewers. It was nearly three hours after their trip to the launchpad, not about five hours.

Even if the uncrewed test flight of Artemis I goes perfectly, Artemis II — the one that will be the first with astronauts aboard — will not occur until 2024 at the earliest.

In an interview this summer, Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, vented about the gap between Artemis I and Artemis II. “I have been raising Cain,” he said. “If this first mission is successful and meets the goals and is safe for the astronauts, why can’t we get it quicker than two years?”

Mr. Nelson said that years ago, to save money, NASA decided to reuse some of the electronics equipment, known as avionics, from the Artemis I Orion capsule in the new Orion capsule for Artemis II. “It takes them two years to take the avionics out and redo them,” Mr. Nelson said, “which is very frustrating to me, but it is what it is.”

There will be four astronauts aboard Artemis II. Three will be from NASA, and one will be a Canadian, part of the agreement spelling out the Canadian Space Agency’s participation in the Artemis program. NASA has not yet announced who will fly on the mission.

The trajectory of Artemis II will be fairly simple. After launch, the second stage of the Space Launch System will push Orion into an elliptical orbit that loops as far out as 1,800 miles above Earth. That will give the astronauts time to see how Orion’s systems work.

Then, when Orion speeds around again, its engine will fire to send it toward the moon. For Artemis II, the Orion spacecraft will not enter orbit around the moon; it will just use the moon’s gravity to sling it back to Earth for a Pacific Ocean splashdown. The entire trip should take around 10 days.

The big event will be Artemis III, currently scheduled for no earlier than 2025.

During the Apollo moon landings in the 1960s and 1970s, the lunar lander was packed into the Saturn V rocket. The lander for Artemis III will be a version of a Starship rocket built by SpaceX. The lunar Starship will be launched separately Additional Starships would then launch to refill ithe propellant tanks of the lunar Starship before it left Earth orbit.

At the moon, the Starship lander will enter what is known as a near-rectilinear halo orbit, or N.R.H.O.

Halo orbits are influenced by the gravity of two bodies — in this case, the Earth and the moon — which helps to make the orbit highly stable, minimizing the amount of propellant needed to keep a spacecraft circling the moon. A spacecraft in this orbit also never passes behind the moon, where communications with Earth are cut off.

Once Starship is in orbit around the moon, the Space Launch System rocket will send four astronauts in an Orion capsule to the same near-rectilinear halo orbit. The Orion will dock with the Starship. Two of the astronauts will move to the Starship rocket, landing somewhere near the moon’s South Pole, while the other two astronauts will remain in orbit in Orion.

After about a week on the surface, the two moon-walking astronauts will blast off in Starship and rendezvous with Orion in orbit. Orion will then take the four astronauts back to Earth.

The astronauts aboard Artemis IV will head to Gateway, a space station-like outpost that NASA will build in the same near-rectilinear halo orbit used for Artemis III. That mission will use a Space Launch System rocket with an upgraded second stage, providing enough power to take along Gateway’s habitat module.

Originally, NASA planned for Artemis IV to focus on construction of Gateway. But this year, it decided that the mission would also include a trip to the lunar surface. On Tuesday, NASA announced SpaceX would provide the lander for Artemis IV.

For Artemis V and later missions, the lunar lander will be docked at Gateway. Astronauts will arrive at the Gateway on Orion, then move to the lander for the journey to the surface.

NASA is currently in the middle of a competition for a different company to provide the lander for Artemis V.

NASA would then run a competition for future lunar landers similar to how it hired companies to take cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.

By the end of this decade, humans could walk on the moon once again. Here’s how NASA plans to send them there.

NASA is using its biggest rocket to launch some of its smallest-ever spacecraft into deep space.

The primary mission of Artemis I is to test the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft before putting astronauts aboard for trips to the moon. But with the rocket’s ability to send about 60,000 pounds of payload on a path toward the moon, NASA took the opportunity to add 10 shoebox-size science spacecraft.

The spacecraft, known as CubeSats for their standard size configurations, aim to investigate a variety of scientific questions. Some will even tag along to enter orbit around the moon.

For example, LunaH-Map, led by Craig Hardgrove, a professor of earth and space exploration at Arizona State University, will measure the distribution of hydrogen in the top three feet of the lunar surface around the South Pole region, where NASA plans to land astronauts in the coming years.

The hydrogen is mostly likely in the form of water molecules, which consist of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen.

LunaH will make more detailed maps than Lunar Prospector, a 1990s NASA mission, by passing within a dozen miles or so of the surface.

“It fit nicely with the idea of a CubeSat with a single instrument, with a single science goal,” Dr. Hardgrove said. “In order to do that, we had to get very, very close. And that’s something that is somewhat risky, and larger, more expensive spacecraft likely wouldn’t be willing to take that chance.”

Some of the other CubeSats will stay in deep space to test new technologies and measure radiation. One will head toward an asteroid.

“Artemis I provides a rare opportunity for these small experiments to reach deep space destinations,” Bhavya Lal, NASA’s associate administrator for technology, policy, and strategy, said at a briefing earlier this month.

For the Artemis I mission, the 10 CubeSats are installed on a ring that connects the rocket’s second stage to the Orion spacecraft on top. After the second stage pushes Orion onto a trajectory to the moon, Orion will separate and head on its own way. The second stage will also continue on a moonward path, then deploy the CubeSats.

The price tag for each of the CubeSats is far less than the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on larger, stand-alone spacecraft. The lower cost opens up science opportunities that might otherwise be too expensive to pursue, although with more limited capabilities and higher risks.

“When it comes to CubeSats,” Dr. Lal said, “failure is an option.”

Below are brief descriptions of the other nine CubeSats joining the Artemis I mission:

Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, said cooperation with China was unlikely because of a lack of transparency in its space program. He detailed an encounter with China's ambassador and said the country could share with the international community some of the lunar samples from its Chang’e-5 moon mission.

Mike Bolger, ground systems program manager at Kennedy Space Center, said it was a low moment when the hydrogen leak was detected during the launch countdown, and a high moment when the “red team” members resolved it.

NASA during the news conference released some of the first views of planet Earth from the Orion spacecraft on its journey toward the moon. More images are expected later in the day.

“It’s going to be a really exciting ride,” said Emily Nelson, the chief flight director at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, who agreed with Mr. Sarafin that the Artemis team might not get a lot of sleep over the next 26 days.

Mike Sarafin, the Artemis mission manager said “We’ve got four weeks of mission to go,” and noted some small but not serious hiccups or “funnies” with systems during the early phases of Orion’s flight.

NASA will soon start its post-launch news conference. We’ll highlight key updates and you can watch the video in the YouTube player above.

NASA’s new moon rocket is expensive. How expensive is it? That depends on how you do the accounting. NASA officials have avoided giving a specific answer.

“The Agency will face significant challenges to sustaining its Artemis program in its current configuration,” the report said.

Mr. Martin acknowledged that NASA is working to lower the cost.

At a news conference in March, John Honeycutt, the Space Launch System program manager at NASA, disputed the conclusions of the inspector general’s report. “I will certainly say that the S.L.S. rocket is not going to come at a cost of $4 billion a shot,” he said.

Mr. Honeycutt and other officials have steered clear of saying exactly how much they think S.L.S. would cost.

Orion, the crew capsule where astronauts will sit during their trip to the moon, has cost more than $20 billion since 2006.

NASA, the Planetary Society reported, has also spent $5.7 billion on upgrading ground infrastructure like the crawler-transporter that carries the rocket to the launchpad, the Vehicle Assembly Building where the pieces of the rocket are stacked together, the launch control room and the mobile launcher tower.

NASA is currently negotiating to buy about 20 more Space Launch Systems rockets to be built through 2036 by Deep Space Transport, a joint venture of Boeing and Northrop Grumman.

Boeing manufactured the gigantic core stage and an upgraded second stage that will be used beginning with Artemis IV. Northrop Grumman built the two side rocket boosters attached to the core stage, which are longer versions of those used by NASA’s space shuttles.

More than 50 years ago, the United States built a monster of a rocket. It was named Saturn V, and it was NASA’s ride to the moon. It sent nine crews of astronauts toward the moon and also lifted Skylab, the first American space station, to low-Earth orbit.

Then, NASA took a break from building massive rockets that could carry people to space. The space shuttles were powerful, but they were never intended to travel to the moon. After the shuttles retired, NASA turned to the partially reusable Falcon 9 rocket, which now carries people to the space station. It has become the workhorse of global spaceflight, but it’s nothing like the Saturn V.

The Space Launch System that was used for the Artemis I flight is the closest NASA has gotten to returning to the capability of Saturn V, part of the Apollo program. The goal is to send people easily on a course to the moon and perhaps other destinations. Although the model scheduled to launch on Wednesday cannot carry as much weight to the moon as the Apollo rocket did, future configurations of the Artemis rocket could one day overtake Saturn V.

All of these launchers may one day yield in launch ability to Starship, the fully reusable moon and Mars rocket that SpaceX is building in South Texas. But that vehicle has yet to travel to orbit, so NASA will make do with the Space Launch System for now.

NASA will have a news conference at 5 a.m., when NASA officials will probably say how happy they are.

That’s the last of the big mission events for now. Except for some small course corrections, Orion is now just coasting to the moon.

Orion no longer needs its second stage, but the stage, also headed toward the moon, has one more job to complete: deploying the 10 small CubeSats that tagged along for the ride.

The translunar injection burn has ended. In a few minutes, Orion will detach from the second stage. Orion is moonbound.

The translunar injection burn, which will begin to send the Orion capsule away from Earth orbit and toward the moon, has started. It will last about 18 minutes.

The second stage has already performed a short “perigee-raising” burn, basically to raise the low point of its orbit and keep the spacecraft from falling back to Earth. The next milestone is a longer, 18-minute “translunar injection” burn that will kick Orion out of low-Earth orbit on a trajectory to the moon.

The Space Launch System is taller than a 30-story building. It will be filled with 700,000 gallons of rocket propellants. It has never flown before.

Would you want to be a passenger on that rocket before NASA demonstrates that it works?

The moonikin, wearing the same spacesuit that astronauts will don, is equipped with two radiation sensors. Additional sensors behind its headrest and under its seat will record the vibrations and forces that astronauts will experience during the mission.

Two other seats will be occupied by model female torsos, named Zohar and Helga, that consist of 38 slices of plastic that mimic the density of bones, muscles and organs. Each torso contains 5,600 tiny crystal sensors to measure the amount of radiation absorbed during the mission. The torsos also contain battery-powered sensors that will measure radiation exposure moment by moment.

Zohar will be wearing a protective radiation vest made by an Israeli company; Helga will not. The experiment will test how well the vest is for shielding the greater amounts of radiation astronauts will be exposed to, especially observing the effects on radiation-sensitive organs, like the breasts and ovaries of women.

“What I like to say is that the vest is a gender equalizer,” said Oren Milstein, the chief executive of StemRad, which manufactured the vest. The vest should reduce the radiation exposure by half, Dr. Milstein said.

Another passenger is a small Snoopy, the Peanuts character, wearing an orange spacesuit with gloves, boots and a NASA patch. Snoopy will serve as the zero-gravity indicator, a tradition of bringing up an object — often a stuffed animal — that starts floating once the spacecraft has reached orbit.

And although there are no people aboard, there are living organisms. Orion will be carrying experiments to measure the effects of deep space radiation on yeast, algae, fungi and plant seeds.

While most test flights have been uncrewed, the debut journey of the space shuttle was a notable exception. Two astronauts flew Columbia during its first trip to orbit in 1981.

Flying Artemis I without astronauts gives NASA more flexibility. The mission stretches into December — longer than the Orion spacecraft is designed to work in deep space. NASA will also be willing to continue with the mission if circumstances arose like a partial failure of a power or propulsion system. If there were astronauts aboard, mission managers would regard that as too risky.

During a news conference this summer, Mike Sarafin, the Artemis I mission manager, said NASA would proceed with the engine firing to send the spacecraft toward the moon “unless we’re sure that we’re going to lose the vehicle.”

As an example, if Orion’s solar array did not fully deploy, “We would proceed,” Mr. Sarafin said. “And that is something that we wouldn’t necessarily do on a crewed flight.”

After liftoff, several events occured in quick succession.

Just over two minutes after leaving the ground, the two skinnier side boosters attached to the gigantic core stage of the Space Launch System exhausted their solid rocket fuel and drop away, falling into the Atlantic Ocean.

Eight minutes into flight, the four engines of the core stage shut down. The stage then dropped away and disintegrated as it fell through the atmosphere, the debris splashing in the Pacific. The rocket’s second stage and the Orion capsule that will carry astronauts in the future were then on their own in space.

The Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rocket launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

On its way to the moon, the mission will deploy 10 small research satellites called CubeSats.

Orion will orbit the moon about 43,000 miles above the moon’s surface.

In preparation for splashdown, the crew module will separate from the service module. The crew capsule will splash down in the Pacific Ocean with the help of parachutes.

The Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rocket launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Orion will orbit the moon about 43,000 miles above the moon’s surface.

In preparation for splashdown, the crew module will separate from the service module. The crew capsule will splash down in the Pacific Ocean with the help of parachutes.

On its way to the moon, the mission will deploy 10 small research satellites called

Fifty-one minutes after launch, the rocket’s second stage will fire for 22 seconds to raise the orbit. About one and a half hours after launch, the second stage fires again for about 18 minutes, in what it is called a trans-lunar injection. That is, the second stage will push Orion on a course to the moon. After that engine burn, Orion will separate from the second stage.

On Day 6, Orion will arrive at the moon, entering a few days after that into what is known as distant retrograde orbit — distant because it will be about 40,000 miles above the surface of the moon and retrograde because it will be orbiting in a direction opposite to the way the moon moves around the Earth. Because of gravitational interactions with both the Earth and moon, this is a very stable orbit. (Several years ago, NASA was considering dragging part of an asteroid to this orbit and sending astronauts up in Orion to study it.)

On Day 16, Orion will leave the distant retrograde orbit and start the return trip to Earth. Splashdown will be on Dec. 11, ending a 26-day mission.

As the launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson cheers her team and their work at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA announces that the solar arrays of the Orion space capsule have started to deploy, a key step to providing power to the spacecraft as it travels around the moon.

NASA’s majestic new rocket soared into space for the first time in the early hours of Wednesday, lighting up the night sky and accelerating on a journey that will take an astronaut-less capsule around the moon and back.

“We are all part of something incredibly special,” Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the launch director, said to her team at the Kennedy Space Center after the launch. “The first launch of Artemis. The first step in returning our country to the moon and on to Mars.”

For NASA, the mission ushers in a new era of lunar exploration, one that seeks to unravel scientific mysteries in the shadows of craters in the polar regions, test technologies for dreamed-of journeys to Mars and spur private enterprise to chase new entrepreneurial frontiers farther out in the solar system.

At 1:47 a.m. Eastern time, the four engines on the rocket’s core stage ignited, along with two skinnier side boosters, As the countdown hit zero, clamps holding the rocket down let go, and the vehicle slipped Earth’s bonds.

The glare from the engines was as bright as a giant welding torch, turning night into day for a few minutes. A loud rumble then rolled over the space center.

As the rocket rose, its destination — the moon — was located just to the right in the night sky.

A few minutes later, the side boosters and then the giant core stage separated. The rocket’s upper engine then ignited to carry the Orion spacecraft, where astronauts will sit during later missions, toward orbit.

Less than two hours after launch, the upper stage fired one last time to send Orion on a path toward the moon. On Monday, Orion will pass within 60 miles of the moon’s surface. After going around the moon for a couple of weeks, Orion will head back to Earth, splashing down on Dec. 11 in the Pacific Ocean, about 60 miles off the coast of California.

The launch occurred years behind schedule, and billions of dollars over budget. The delays and cost overruns of S.L.S. and Orion highlight the shortcomings of how NASA has managed its programs

The next Artemis mission, which is to take four astronauts on a journey around the moon but not to the surface, will launch no earlier than 2024. Artemis III, in which two astronauts will land near the moon’s south pole, is currently scheduled for 2025, though that date is very likely to slip further into the future.

Still, the sprawling expense of Artemis might be the cost of sustaining political support for a space program in a federal democracy, said Casey Dreier, the chief policy adviser for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit that promotes exploration of space. Even if Artemis is not the best or most efficient design, it provides jobs to the employees of NASA and aerospace companies across the country, he said. That provides continuing political support for the moon program.

“Congress has done nothing but add more money to Artemis every single year it’s been in existence,” Mr. Dreier said.

NASA is currently negotiating with the rocket’s manufacturers for up to 20 more launches.

“I think the program itself is shaping up to be very politically sustainable,” Mr. Dreier said. “I challenge people to show me the public anger about the S.L.S. program and how it translates to political pressure to cancel it. And I just don’t see it.”

Incredible view of the bright light of the rocket engines to the left of the moon.

It’s incredibly bright. Then, the rumble rolled past. It’s back to night again here. Everything looks good so far.

The rocket’s engines are “gimbaling” on the launchpad, or demonstrating their ability to steer the rocket into space.

Words like these are often uttered when a rocket is seconds from heading to space. On Wednesday, after decades of American spaceflight and numerous launches, a woman will be saying them for NASA.

The Artemis I rocket, now on Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and preparing to launch for the moon on Wednesday, is counting down to ignition. The final decision will be in the hands of Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, who has worked in spaceflight for more than 30 years. As launch director, she’s the boss of the “firing room” during the countdown, and the buck stops with her.

“Firsts don’t come along that often and to be at the beginning of a program that is going to take the first woman and the next man back to the Moon is pretty special,” Ms. Blackwell-Thompson said during a news conference this summer. “It’s pretty special to me.”

Ms. Blackwell-Thompson compared the Apollo and Artemis missions while speaking at another news conference. Decades ago for Apollo 11, there was just one woman in the firing room of 450 men, she said. Today, on launch day for Artemis I, 30 percent of the approximately 100 engineers in the firing room are women.

“There is, without a doubt, a female presence as part of this — in both the leadership of this program and the operations areas, as well as the name of the program itself,” she said. “So certainly the makeup of our workforce has changed over the course of the 50 years.”

According to NASA, Ms. Blackwell-Thompson oversees all countdown planning, training and procedures, including developing plans if the countdown must be halted and the launch rescheduled.

“I wanted to be a part of that team. I wanted to earn myself a seat in the room, and I was lucky enough over time, to do that,” she said.

She was named NASA’s first female launch director in January 2016, setting her on the path to lead Firing Room 1 on Wednesday.

The newsroom is emptying out with everyone heading outside to watch.

The countdown clock has resumed. Less than 10 minutes until liftoff.

Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the launch director, has announced that Artemis I is go for launch.

“No constraints to launch,”according to Jeff Spalding, a NASA test director. Among other things, that means the issue with the faulty Ethernet switch for the radar has been resolved.

The first launch of the Artemis mission to return to the moon may provide a late-night light show, if you live in Florida or southeastern Georgia and are willing to stay up late to see it.

The launch opportunity begins at 1:04 a.m. Eastern time, and could happen any time until 3:04 a.m., if it occurs. With the mission lifting off from Kennedy Space Center, rocket watchers on the ground in Florida can spot the space-bound behemoth, which will be visible to the naked eye for up to 70 seconds after it launches. And Florida residents might be able to see it from the comfort of home.

“As long as they have a clear view of the sky in that direction, they should be able to see it across the state,” said Meagan Happel, a spokeswoman for the Space Coast Office of Tourism in Florida.

The visibility will last longer the closer a person is to Cape Canaveral, but you don’t have to be on the coast. According to NASA projections, the moon rocket will shine in the sky almost as far inland as Tallahassee, if weather permits. And skygazers as far north as Savannah, Ga., might also be able to spot the rocket with clear enough skies, though it may only be for a few seconds, said Patti Beiling, a spokeswoman for the Kennedy Space Center.

After those 70 seconds, when the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule reach an altitude of 42,000 feet, they will be out of view.

Despite the launch’s late hour, there are still places to watch liftoff from the ground. Along the Space Coast of Florida, numerous viewing spots are open to the public. However, in the aftermath of Hurricane Nicole, some locations, including popular beaches, have been closed because of storm damage. Night launches are not uncommon, though, and some popular spots were already almost full 12 hours ahead of scheduled liftoff, Ms. Happel said. The darkness may even help, Ms. Beiling said, as “it may be easier to visually locate the rocket in the darkness of the night sky.”

Even if the rocket is not visible where you are within the viewing zone because of weather or obstructions on the ground, the Space Launch System is also set to be the loudest rocket launched on the Space Coast, “with experts predicting it could be heard up to 45 miles away a few minutes after launch,” Ms. Happel said.

The mission management team will take a poll, basically asking if everyone thinks the rocket is ready to launch.

Derrol Nail says the countdown could resume soon, with launch potentially around 2 a.m. Eastern.

Derrol Nail, the NASA commentator listening in on discussions in the Firing Room where launch decisions are made, said engineers are evaluating the work that remains to be completed before launch. He offered what he called a “rough estimate” of no earlier than 1:45 a.m. Eastern — with an emphasis on the roughness of the estimate.

It’s 1:04 a.m., and we know exactly where the Artemis mission’s moon rocket is. NASA is in an “indefinite hold” for the countdown, although it has two hours to make up for lost time.

We are waiting for updates on a few things: 1. The Space Launch System rocket to be fully fueled; 2. Confirmation that the fix to the bad Ethernet switch succeeded; 3. A new launch time, because the rocket definitely will not go at 1:04 a.m. Eastern time.

Why should NASA repeat what it did half a century ago?

“It’s a future where NASA will land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon,” Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, said during a news conference earlier this year. “And on these increasingly complex missions, astronauts will live and work in deep space and will develop the science and technology to send the first humans to Mars.”

NASA is also hoping to jump-start companies looking to set up a steady business of flying scientific instruments and other payloads to the moon and to inspire students to enter science and engineering fields.

For scientists, the renewed focus on the moon promises a bonanza of new data in the coming years. There is a particular interest in the amount of water ice on the moon, which could be used for astronauts’ water and oxygen supplies in the future and could also provide fuel for missions deeper into space.

Scientists do not really know how much water is there or how easy it will be to extract the water from the surrounding rock and soil. Future missions could help resolve that question.

Still an hour to go before the start of the two-hour launch window. NASA has time to work with.

So far, no recurrence of the hydrogen leak after the bolts around the liquid hydrogen replenish valve were tightened. The radar problem apparently was caused by a bad Ethernet switch, which is being swapped out.

Since NASA tried to launch its large moon rocket in September, it has had to contend with a pair of hurricanes.

In preparation for the next launch attempt in November, the rocket trundled back out to the launchpad on Nov. 4. At the time, Hurricane Nicole was still an unnamed disturbance in the Atlantic Ocean, and forecasters did not expect a storm to form or strengthen into a hurricane. Once it did, NASA managers realized that they did not have enough time to safely put the rocket back indoors, and they decided it leave it outside.

“I think it’s safe to say, for all of us, we obviously would not have wanted to stay out there,” said Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems. “The best place for the vehicle in those kinds of things is the V.A.B. We could not make it back to the V.A.B. and be safe.”

During the hurricane, a 100-mile-per-hour gust was recorded at the launchpad — but that was near the top of one of the lightning towers, higher than the rocket. Mr. Free said that the winds closer to the ground had not exceeded the vehicle’s design specifications.

Inspections revealed some minor damage, including some to a strip of caulk from the Orion crew capsule that sat on top of the rocket. On Monday, engineers finished an analysis that showed the missing 10 feet of caulk — added to smooth the flow of air during liftoff — would not cause problems.

“I would say that we’re comfortable flying as is,” Michael Sarafin, the Artemis mission manager, said on Monday evening.

The tightening of the bolts appears to have stopped the hydrogen leak. The flow of liquid hydrogen has resumed into the core booster stage.

CAPSTONE had its own share of unplanned excitement.

Right after launch, mission controllers lost contact with the microwave-oven-size probe because of an inadvertent command sent to the spacecraft that told it to turn off its radio.

“That was pretty terrifying,” said Thomas Gardner, the program manager for the mission at Advanced Space, a small Colorado company that built the spacecraft and operates it. “We weren’t sure exactly what had happened, but once you figured it out, it was pretty easy to make sure it never happened again.”

In July, after thrusters were fired to adjust CAPSTONE’s course to the moon, contact was lost again. This time, a valve for one of the thrusters stuck, sending the spacecraft into a spin. Over the next few weeks, engineers successfully restored communications, diagnosed the problem and stopped the spin.

Because CAPSTONE took the slow, fuel-efficient trajectory to the moon, that gave the engineers plenty of time to troubleshoot before the spacecraft passed its destination.

“It gives you time to fix issues if you have them,” Mr. Gardner said.

Category: Science

Source: New York Times

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