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NASA Launch Starts New Chapter in Traveling to Moon

The world's most powerful rocket flashed to life recently — blinding onlookers as though staring into the sun — and then released a thunderous roar as it throttled skyward with the power of 160,000 Corvette engines.

(TNS) — The world's most powerful rocket flashed to life in the early morning — blinding onlookers as though staring into the sun — and then released a thunderous, bone-rattling roar as it throttled skyward with the power of 160,000 Corvette engines.

The 322-foot-tall rocket hurtled through the darkness Wednesday at 12:47 a.m. CST, pushing an uncrewed spacecraft away from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, beyond Earth's atmosphere and onward to a particularly arduous journey around the moon.

The Orion capsule's 25-day mission will go farther than any spacecraft designed for humans has gone. It will stay in space longer than any space shuttle or Apollo capsule, and it will come home hotter and faster.

IN DEPTH: NASA set for 3rd try at launching Artemis I mega rocket, marking a new era of lunar exploration

It's a bold, aggressive mission because the agency's next launch, slated for 2024, will have astronauts strapped atop the Space Launch System rocket. And NASA plans for subsequent missions to be even bigger as the agency returns astronauts to the moon and then looks toward Mars.

"We still have a long ways to go. This is just the test flight," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a news conference. "And we are stressing it and testing it in ways we will not do to a rocket that has a human crew on it. But that's the purpose to make it as safe as possible. As reliable as possible for when our astronauts crawl onboard and go back to the moon."

This launch of NASA's Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft is more than a decade in the making. Their development is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule; slowed by the whims of politicians and the challenges of rocketry.

The first two launch attempts on Aug. 29 and Sept. 3 were thwarted by technical issues.

Then on Tuesday a leak was detected as the rocket's core stage was replenished with liquid hydrogen. This fuel has to be replenished because it boils off as it gets warm (liquid hydrogen must be kept at minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit).

Specially trained technicians were sent to the launch pad to tighten bolts. This fixed the problem, but then another issue occurred: The Space Force had a bad Ethernet switch. This was going to interfere with radar used to track the rocket's path and to send a flight termination signal to the rocket should it veer off course and become a public danger.

The Ethernet switch was replaced and NASA proceeded with its countdown, delighting the 15,000 people who witnessed liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center. The rocket could still be seen five minutes after its launch, twinkling like a star in the distance.

But as these onlookers celebrated in Florida, Houston's flight directors and controllers were hard at work at the Johnson Space Center. Mission control took responsibility for the flight immediately after the rocket engines ignited.

Mission control will work 2 4/7 to oversee various Artemis I mission objectives, including engine burns that get Orion to the moon and back and planned tests of the capsule's guidance, navigation and control system.

They'll also experience a phenomenon that mission control hasn't seen in 50 years.

"Of course, I don't have personal experience with a lunar mission," said Emily Nelson, NASA's chief flight director. "So just like everybody else, I think the most exciting part for this one is going to be those first views of the moon getting bigger and the Earth getting smaller."

The Johnson Space Center also manages the Orion Program — meaning Houston engineers oversaw the design, development and testing of the Orion spacecraft — and it is managing the partnerships with commercial companies that are developing spacesuits.

Later Artemis missions will use the Johnson Space Center-led Gateway, an outpost that will orbit the moon.

And, of course, the next NASA astronauts to walk on the moon will have been trained in Space City.

" Houston was the first word transmitted from the surface of the moon," Johnson Space Center director Vanessa Wyche said in a statement, "and it will be the first word spoken upon our return."

The Orion capsule will reach the moon on Monday, making its closest approach roughly 60 miles above the surface. The spacecraft will use the moon's gravitational force to enter a wider orbit, and then it will reach its farthest distance from Earth at 298,565 miles on Nov. 28.

It will land in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego on Dec. 11.

NASA has not yet announced who will fly on the Artemis II mission. Jim Free, NASA's head of human deep space activities, said that announcement will come after Artemis I and hopefully before the end of the year.

Then the mission in 2025, Artemis III, would land the first woman and person of color on the moon. Free hopes it allows young girls and young girls of color to see themselves as NASA astronauts.

"NASA is the best dollar spent on education in the U.S. government," Free said, "and we're not even part of the Department of Education."

© 2022 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.