CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — Orion is in flight!
A thunderous roar could be heard for miles around NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) here early Wednesday morning (Nov. 16) as the agency's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket launched an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on the Artemis 1 mission to the moon.
Orion's journey will take it through a high elliptical lunar orbit as the vehicle is put through its paces to test the spacecraft's resilience for future crewed flights on Artemis 2 and beyond. The capsule's shakeout cruise will end on Dec. 11 with a parachute-aided splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.
The Artemis 1 launch was a huge milestone for NASA. The agency's long-term crewed moon plans, and the infrastructure required to support it, have faced budgetary issues, production delays, restructuring and pushback from critics who view the nearly $40 billion dollars spent in development, and the SLS's estimated $4.1 billion per-launch cost, to be too high a price for a rocket built around space shuttle-era technology.
So the success of Artemis 1 so far is sweet for NASA, and the agency took a bit of time to savor it.
In a postlaunch briefing on Wednesday morning, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson voiced his praise for mission managers and everyone at NASA with a hand in the SLS's decade-long road to liftoff.
"The legacy that this professional crew put together in getting us to this day over the years is a legacy that indeed has been well earned and will continue as we go back to the moon and then we go to Mars," Nelson said.
Nelson, like many top NASA officials, watched the liftoff from KSC's Launch Control Center (LCC).
"You should have heard the other astronauts that I was standing with," Nelson said during the briefing. "We were down in the Launch Control Center and all went up on the roof so that we could feel that acoustic shockwave and see, undiminished, that tail of flame — of fire. And then to see that pillar of smoke, even in the dark of night. It was pretty overwhelming."
Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin also attended the briefing. "Today, we got to witness the world's most powerful rocket take the Earth by its edges and shake the wicked out of it," he said. "And it was quite a sight."
All in attendance at Wednesday's 5 a.m. briefing, still riding the high of watching the Artemis liftoff a few hours earlier, were fairly sleepy-eyed as they approached an end to the marathon night of launch coverage.
Liftoff, though, was really only the beginning of the Artemis 1 mission, as Sarafin pointed out. "There's definitely relief that we're underway, but we also have a heightened sense of awareness that this mission is underway. And I personally am not going to rest well until we get safely to splashdown and recovery."
The sight of SLS's two blindingly white solid rocket booster ignitions brought back memories for SLS program manager John Honeycutt, of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
"I [was] looking at this big ball of fire and I'm thinking, 'You know, it's been a little over 12 years since I got to experience this,'" he said during the briefing, likely referring to a space shuttle launch. (The SLS solid rocket boosters are based on the vehicles used during the shuttle program, and the SLS core stages uses shuttle main engines.) "And it's so awesome to be back in the business doing it. We've laid the foundation for the Artemis program and many generations to come. The team just did an outstanding job."
Related: Facts about NASA's Artemis program
Chief flight director Emily Nelson also attended the briefing, and she sang the praises of ground teams in mission control. "The LCC team just did a flawless job getting through tanking and getting to liftoff, and then the MCC Houston team had a seamless handover and executed the remainder of that ascent up to orbit," Nelson said. "It was really great to get to see those teams get the opportunity to use the expertise that they've developed over years of training and preparation. This mission is not only going to test the spacecraft, but it's going to test the teams as well."
Back in the LCC, following Orion's insertion into Earth orbit, Artemis launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson addressed console operators.
"Well, for once, I might be speechless," Blackwell-Thompson, NASA's first female launch director, said to the whole of mission control. "I want you to look around, look around at this team, and know that you have earned it. You have earned your place in this room. You've earned this moment. You have earned your place in history. You were part of a first."
She echoed words she told them before liftoff: "The harder the climb, the better the view. We showed the Space Coast tonight what a beautiful view it is."
Blackwell-Thompson then made an announcement. "We've got a couple of traditions here in Launch Control. And the first one is when you're in the position for the first time, you get a tie cutting," she explained.
"So, I have my launch director scissors, and I'm going to get my tie cut by a couple of legends that are here," she said, motioning to former space shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach, who had the honor of cutting Blackwell-Thompson's tie. She looked back at the room full of console operators and continued, almost choking on her words as her emotions reached the surface, "Anyone who wants their tie cut, we'll be making the rounds in the firing room. You got your console chiefs, if they want to do it, that's fine. If you want me to do it, you might have to wait a little while, but I'll stay all night if I have to. It'll be my pleasure to cut ties."
Continuing with the tradition of the tie-cutting, former Space Shuttle launch director, Mike Leinbach, cuts the tie of Kennedy's first female launch director, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson. The tradition signifies the first time in a console position after a successful launch. pic.twitter.com/3nrLWRU4LrNovember 16, 2022
Over the next few days, Orion will close the distance to the moon, making its closest approach to the lunar surface on Monday (Nov. 21), flying just 60 miles (97 kilometers) above the rock and regolith.
"We are on day one of a 26-day mission" Sarafin observed during Wednesday's briefing. "We bought down a lot of risks today, but we've got a lot of mission ahead of us."
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Josh Dinner is Space.com's Content Manager. He is a writer and photographer with a passion for science and space exploration, and has been working the space beat since 2016. Josh has covered the evolution of NASA's commercial spaceflight partnerships, from early Dragon and Cygnus cargo missions to the ongoing development and launches of crewed missions from the Space Coast, as well as NASA science missions and more. He also enjoys building 1:144 scale models of rockets and human-flown spacecraft. Find some of Josh's launch photography on Instagram and his website, and follow him on Twitter, where he mostly posts in haiku.