After considerable delays, humans are one step closer to returning to the Moon. On Wednesday morning just before 2 AM, NASA finally launched Artemis 1, an unmanned mission that will send a rocket around the Moon, from its Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Though unmanned, the spacecraft carried a module that is designed to carry humans. The rocket on which the module traveled is known as Orion, and is NASA's flagship rocket for future Moon missions.
Originally slated for lift-off on August 29, four different delays pushed the mission back to November 16th. The repeated delays were a result of extreme caution on behalf of NASA, given the mission's expense: NASA estimates it will spend $95 billion on the Artemis project up till 2025, with each launch, including this one, costing about $4.1 billion. The delays were partially due to the pure hydrogen fuel tanks, which proved to be finicky.
Thankfully, the Artemis 1 launch went off without a hitch. Now, the spacecraft will undergo a full test of its capabilities and instruments over the course of the next three weeks before it returns to Earth.
"What an incredible sight to see NASA's Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft launch together for the first time. 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," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.
This mission is intended to inaugurate a new era of exploration of the Moon, which has not been visited by humans since 1972. If and when a manned mission returns, it will mark a new era for humanity. For these reasons, the Artemis missions are considered a big deal, hence why so many people were closely following its postponements.
Though there aren't any astronauts onboard, there's still a lot we'll be able to study about Earth's closest neighbor. So what will we hope to learn?
What are Artemis and Orion and where are they going?
Artemis is the name of the mission, after the Greek lunar deity, who was the "goddess of the hunt." Orion is the name of the semi-reusable spacecraft, named for the constellation which depicts another mythical Greek hunter.
According to NASA, Orion will loop once around the Earth, flinging it approximately 40,000 miles beyond the Moon, where it will zip around it on November 21. There, it will drop off a few toaster-sized satellites called CubeSats (more on them in a bit) and return to Earth over the course of 25.5 days, splashing back down to earth on December 11.
While this mission may seem similar to Apollo, the execution is quite different, and it marks a lot of firsts — including the first use of the blandly named Space Launch System, which is the most powerful rocket in the world and NASA's largest since the Saturn V rockets of the Apollo mission era. The Apollo missions were also much shorter, typically around 8 days in space.
What took so long to get the rocket off the ground?
Two technical issues — a problem with one of the engines on August 29th and a hydrogen leak on September 3 — made launching Artemis 1 too dangerous. But weather was a major issue, too. First, Tropical Storm Ian scrapped a September 24 launch while Hurricane Nicole delayed the launch on November 14.
But these delays are only the most recent. In truth, the Orion program has been suffering setbacks, including from tornadoes and design flaws, since 2010, when President Obama signed the NASA Authorization Act, kickstarting the program.
As history has shown, little errors can have big consequences, so it's probably a good thing NASA waited until the right moment. Rushed engineering of unmanned Vanguard rockets designed during the beginning of the Space Race led to dismal consequences: from 1957 to 1959, only 3 of 11 Vanguard rockets successfully reached orbit.
Now, the Artemis missions will lay the foundation for other off-world exploration, including potential Mars expeditions.
Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.
"It's taken a lot to get here, but Orion is now on its way to the Moon," Jim Free, NASA deputy associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, said in the same statement. "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."
What's onboard the Orion?
Orion carries with it 10 CubeSats, each with its own special mission, that will be left behind as the main spacecraft heads back to Earth. CubeSats are lightweight, blocky satellites that have revolutionized interstellar communication because you can stuff a lot of them on a single rocket. In fact, Orion has already dropped a few that have since begun tweeting.
Some of them are more exciting than others. OMOTENASHI, for example, will crash itself into the Moon's surface using a laser-ignited rocket. Japan's JAXA, their equivalent to NASA, designed the smallest lunar lander in history to deploy an airbag, allowing OMOTENASHI (a Japanese word which means "hospitality") to land safely. It will then measure radiation levels which are "essential to support radiation risk assessments for astronauts and establish a benchmark for space radiation models for human space activities on the Moon," a JAXA report explains.
BioSentinel is another peculiar experiment, containing a bioengineered strain of budding yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) typically used in baking and brewing beer. The fungus are embedded into microfluidic cards that can measure their growth and "help calibrate the biological effects of radiation in deep space," NASA says. Space agencies will need to design ways of dealing with the vast level of radiation in space, which will be a huge issue for any humans that visit the moon. Speaking of which…
What's next for Moon missions?
Artemis 1 is just the beginning. Artemis 2, due to launch in May 2024, will carry humans — but they will not land, merely orbit the moon, much like they Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 missions. If all goes well with Artemis 1 and 2, the Artemis 3 mission could launch as early as 2025. It is intended to put people on the moon for the first time since 1972, the Apollo 17 mission.
The Artemis 3 mission won't merely be the first time in a while since someone has put bootprints on Moon dust. NASA states they intend to "land the first woman and the first person of color on the surface of the Moon," with this mission.