NASA launches its mega Artemis I moon rocket 50 years after Apollo program

BREVARD, Fla. – NASA launched its massive Artemis I moon rocket early Wednesday, bringing the United States a step closer to landing on the lunar surface for the first time in 50 years since the end of the Apollo program.

NASA teams fueled the 322-foot Space Launch System rocket with liquid hydrogen and oxygen at 3:50 p.m. EST, just over nine hours ahead of liftoff. The launch was scheduled for 1:04 a.m. EST Wednesday, giving NASA a two-hour window to send the ship into orbit, but technical problems delayed the launch time.

After all elements were polled a "go," the rocket launched at 1:47 a.m.

“For the Artemis generation, this is for you,” launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson said before liftoff, referring to young people who were not alive for Apollo.

The launch has been scrubbed and delayed four times this year – twice because of technical problems, once for a hurricane and once for a tropical storm.

At about 9:30 p.m., NASA reported an intermittent hydrogen leak on the rocket's core stage. About half an hour later, Blackwell-Thompson gave a "go" for the specialized "red team" to enter the launch pad to troubleshoot the problem.

While the red team completed the hydrogen repair by 11 p.m., NASA reported a technical issue involving a radar. NASA's Range Safety Operations was able to replace an Ethernet switch, a type of networking hardware, by 12:30 p.m. Teams were moving forward, but more testing was needed.

The Artemis I launch will send a new, empty capsule around the moon for the first time in 50 years. This first test flight is expected to last four to six weeks and will end with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

The $4.1 billion mission will allow NASA to test the capsule’s heat shield during reentry. If this mission is successful, four astronauts will be able to strap in for the next moonshot in 2024, followed by a lunar landing of two astronauts a year or two later.

50 YEARS LATER: US takes its first step back to the moon with launch of Artemis I

What is Artemis I?

Artemis I is the first part of the Artemis mission; the goal is to complete a lunar orbit. The mission marks the debut of the Space Launch System rocket, also known as SLS.

The SLS will produce a maximum of 8.8 million pounds of thrust, “exerting more power than any rocket ever,” according to NASA.

The uncrewed Orion spacecraft, stacked atop the rocket, will travel 280,000 miles from Earth, flying farther than any craft built for humans, according to NASA.

Orion is a larger and more complex successor to the Apollo craft. After liftoff, Orion will fly a 1.3 million-mile journey for roughly a month to lunar orbit and back.

A successful return to Earth will let NASA determine whether astronauts can fly in the capsule for a similar mission, Artemis II, in 2024. Artemis III would put two astronauts on the moon’s surface a year or two later.

Mission milestones

The Artemis missions will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon, NASA says.

The purpose of the missions is to explore the lunar surface more than ever before and establish the first long-term presence on the moon, according to NASA. Scientific discoveries made on and around the moon will be used to prepare for missions to Mars and the hope of sending the first astronauts to the Red Planet.

Why is there no crew on Artemis I?

The purpose is to test the ship’s propulsion and navigation systems, along with Orion’s life-support systems, according to NASA. Aboard the unpiloted spacecraft will be three mannequins.

NASA will put one mannequin in the commander’s chair and the other two in adjacent chairs to track radiation levels.

Back to the moon, again

The last time NASA sent astronauts to the moon was in December 1972 on Apollo 17 to close out the Apollo program.

The Apollo 17 mission was much shorter compared with the estimated duration of the Artemis mission. From launch to splashdown, Apollo 17 mission time was 12 days, 13 hours, and 52 minutes.

Artemis I is expected to fly 26 to 42 days.

Contributing: Jennifer Borresen and George Petras, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NASA fires Artemis I rocket as program eyes journey around the moon