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NASA’s Artemis I mission took a big step forward in the early morning hours Wednesday with a historic rocket launch that set the Orion spacecraft speeding toward a lunar orbit.

The mission is part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to create a sustained human presence on the moon and push on to deeper-space operations. No one has touched down on the lunar surface since 1972.

Now, Orion will face a series of tests in the coming weeks as it moves toward and around an orbit that will take it around 40,000 miles beyond the moon, before it races back to Earth.

At different stages during the flight, expected to run about 26 days, Orion will face radiation exposure, use solar arrays to generate power from the sun and test communications systems, while its propulsion system conducts maneuvers, according to Mike Sarafin, the NASA Artemis mission manager.

The Lockheed Martin Corp.-built spacecraft should take about a week to get to the moon and then will spend roughly a week in its orbit.

“We’ve got to take it day by day. We’re going to learn stuff as we go," Mr. Sarafin said at a briefing a few hours after liftoff.

Engineers tracked a few issues related to the launch, but saw them as relatively benign, according to Mr. Sarafin.

Overall, NASA officials said they were pleased with the performance of the rocket, which kick-started the mission with a fiery blastoff at 1:47 a.m. ET from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The rocket, developed by Boeing Co. and powered in part with boosters from Northrop Grumman Corp., has faced technical challenges, delays and cost overruns over the years, according to NASA’s inspector general.

More recently, NASA struggled with a familiar problem when trying to fuel the rocket with super-cold liquid hydrogen. A relatively large leak of that propellant forced the agency to scrub a launch attempt in early September, just days after a separate problem canceled a try in August.

To see the SLS fly “feels great. It feels ever better to have it perform the way it did," John Honeycutt, program manager for the rocket at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said at the briefing. “It’s been a long time coming."

On Tuesday, NASA’s launch team for Artemis I was able to fuel the SLS liquid hydrogen tank relatively easily. A valve used to top off the tank, however, later began leaking, prompting the agency to send a so-called “red crew" of three people out to the launchpad to tighten the valve’s bolts.

Their repairs were successful, permitting NASA to proceed with the launch, officials said.

NASA plans to disclose additional photos of Earth taken from Orion and provide other updates about its progress, officials have said. The agency showed a photo of a darkened Earth during its early morning briefing Wednesday.

With the mission under way, NASA also continues to move ahead with future, planned operations for Artemis.

The agency said Tuesday it completed an agreement to use a SpaceX Starship vehicle to transport astronauts to the surface of the moon for Artemis IV, a mission currently scheduled for 2027. NASA last year hired the space company led by Elon Musk to handle such an operation in 2025.

The agency also recently ordered three more Orion ships from Lockheed Martin, while Boeing has said it is pressing ahead with SLS work for future Artemis flights.

 

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