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NASA gets its mojo back with a stunning nighttime launch of the SLS rocket

NASA's Space Launch System rocket lifts off on Wednesday morning from Kennedy Space Center.
Enlarge / NASA’s Space Launch System rocket lifts off on Wednesday morning from Kennedy Space Center.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.—The skies were auspicious during the wee hours of Wednesday morning, as the Artemis I mission ticked down its final seconds until liftoff.

Ten, nine, eight seconds …

Shining brightly, near the southern horizon, was the constellation Orion, namesake to NASA’s new deep space vehicle.

Seven, six, five …

Hanging almost directly overhead the launch tower was a half Moon, the destination of the Artemis I mission.

Four, three, two and one …

Suddenly, the night lights came not from the stars pricking the night sky, nor the fat Moon overhead. Rather, the rocket roared to life, its massive solid rocket boosters pushing it upward. As the rocket ascended, it left in its wake a tremendous pillar of exhaust, evocative of Jack’s giant beanstalk. Several seconds after liftoff, the sound and fury and acoustic energy of the Space Launch System thundered outward.

For a moment, it was deafening. And then, it was gone.

But the rocket pushed onward and upward, sending its payload, the Orion spacecraft and its service module, toward the Moon. For the first time in more than half a century, a spacecraft capable of carrying humans is on its way back to the Moon. The next time it flies, four astronauts will be on board.

A big win

It has been a long, long time since NASA’s human spaceflight program tasted institutional success like this.

The US space agency had not launched an orbital rocket since 2011, when NASA flew its storied space shuttle for the final time. Moreover, NASA had not flown a new orbital rocket into space since the shuttle’s debut in 1981. So on Wednesday morning, remarkably, NASA flew its first new rocket in more than four decades.

The years since the space shuttle retired have, in some ways, been rather lean ones for the space agency. For awhile, NASA had to battle against a public perception that with the end of the shuttle, and end of NASA’s ability to put astronauts into space, the agency itself had shuttered its doors. This was not helped when Americans realized that the only way for US astronauts to reach space was by launching on a Russian rocket from the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan.

Additionally, across the last decade, NASA has faced fierce criticism that its deep space vehicles for humans, the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft, were massively over cost and far behind schedule. There is no question that they were, and this was partly due to NASA’s management. The only way NASA could answer these critics was to put their heads down, work harder, and fly safely.

All of this contributed to something of a mid-life crisis for the agency, which was once the darling of the world, in the 2010s. Though it yet retains some of this global popularity, NASA’s struggles and delays since the end of the shuttle exposed the reality that NASA is very far from the young, nimble agency that needed less than a decade to land humans on the Moon in the 1960s.

Going to stay

The agency, too, has had to explain why it is going back to the Moon now, more than half a century later. Haven’t we been there, and done that? The Artemis II mission, which will fly four astronauts around the Moon, looks a lot like Apollo 8. And the Artemis III mission will not be all that different from the Apollo 11 landing.

This time is different, of course. NASA will send its astronauts to the South Pole, rather than the mid-latitudes, because there is potentially ice there. And the agency has plans to conduct long sorties on the lunar surface, and perhaps eventually build up a settlement. NASA wants to do all of this lunar exploration more sustainably, with the help of commercial space companies like SpaceX to bring down costs and leverage powerful new capabilities. And as its astronauts spend time at the Moon, they may possibly learn enough about the lunar environment, and living in deep space, to make missions to Mars a feasible next step.

But this is really difficult to explain when you have a rocket that looks a lot like the Saturn V, and a spacecraft that looks a like an Apollo capsule, and you’re using them to fly back to the Moon.

It will now become easier to explain. For a dozen years, NASA has had to talk about all the great things its deep space exploration program was going to accomplish. It is so much more straightforward to show people what you can do, rather than tell them what you’re going to do. And now NASA can point to this mission, and Orion’s forthcoming flight, as the first steps toward its greater vision. That is powerful, perhaps more powerful than the 8.8 million pounds of thrust blasting off the launch pad on Wednesday morning.

If all goes well, Orion will spend about 25.5 days in space, testing out the propulsion system on the service module, and its ability to survive a long duration spaceflight before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on December 11.

NASA is back.

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