Nasa’s Artemis moon mission has successfully lifted off Earth, heralding a new era for lunar exploration which will eventually see humans return to the moon.
After a series of failed launch attempts earlier in the year, Artemis 1 took off at 6.47am (1.47am local time), with Nasa’s Space Launch System rocket, its most powerful ever, propelling the Orion spacecraft upwards from the agency’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
“We rise together, back to the moon and beyond,” said Nasa’s official commentator as the rocket took off.
The uncrewed mission around the moon will pave the way for a crewed flight test and future human lunar exploration.
Nasa flight director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson addressed her colleagues at the Kennedy Space Centre after the launch.
She said: “You are part of a first – it doesn’t come along very often, once in a career, maybe.
“We are all part of something incredibly special: the first launch of Artemis. The first step in returning our country to the moon and on to Mars.
“What you have done today will inspire generations to come.”
Ms Blackwell-Thompson, who had her tie cut following the successful launch in keeping with Nasa tradition, added: “The harder the climb, the better the view. We showed the space coast tonight what a beautiful view it is.”
Scientists and engineers from around the world, including the UK, have been instrumental in the mission.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is a key partner in the programme, delivering Orion’s European Service Module, built by Airbus, as well as elements of the Moon-orbiting Lunar Gateway.
Libby Jackson, head of space exploration at the UK Space Agency, said: “The launch of the Artemis 1 mission is a hugely significant moment for the global space community, paving the way for humanity to return to the moon in the coming years.
“We are proud to be a part of ESA, which is contributing to this mission with the Orion service module, and we look forward to seeing direct UK involvement in the Lunar Gateway, currently in development through ESA’s exploration programme.
“It’s also exciting to see this mission being tracked in the UK from Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall, marking a major step for our capacity to offer commercial lunar communications from the UK.”
During the test flight, experts at Goonhilly will provide operational support, helping to track the spacecraft and up to six of its 10 satellite payloads once in orbit.
Matt Cosby, chief engineering officer at Goonhilly Earth Station, said: “We look forward to contributing to this iconic mission from here in the UK.
“Goonhilly played a role in distributing the Apollo Moon landing footage back in 1969; we’re now taking one step further and contributing to humanity’s return to the moon.
“Supporting Artemis is a fantastic way to further demonstrate our capabilities as we continue to expand our deep space commercial services.”
— NASA Artemis (@NASAArtemis) November 16, 2022
The 322ft (98m) tall Space Launch System rocket is due to take the Orion capsule, powered by the Airbus-built European Service Module (ESM), into the moon’s orbit.
The flight, which will carry mannequins rather than astronauts, marks the next chapter in putting humans back on the moon.
There will be people on board for subsequent missions, with the first crewed flight into space scheduled for 2024.
The last manned mission to the moon was Apollo 17, which took place in December 1972.
Bill Nelson, administrator of Nasa, said the launch team were “part of a great legacy”.
The Nasa boss added: “This legacy is now taking us as we explore the heavens. It didn’t end with Apollo 17 – this time we’re going back, we’re going to learn a lot of what we have to, and then we’re going to Mars with humans.”
Mr Nelson said it was a priority for Nasa to land the first woman and person of colour on the moon through the mission because it was “reflective of America”.
For now, a more unconventional crew member is on board, with a Shaun the Sheep animatable puppet being blasted into space on the rocket.
Shaun’s mission to the Moon begins today as the Orion spacecraft launched into space from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, taking @esa's newest astronaut farther than any human (or sheep!) has ever been before! #Artemis1 #ForwardToTheMoon 🌚 pic.twitter.com/ZIuSNoIGGI
— Shaun the Sheep (@shaunthesheep) November 16, 2022
The mission is expected to last 25 days, including outbound transit, the journey around the moon and deployment of satellites, followed by a return transit before splashdown in the Pacific Ocean in December.
Named after the Greek goddess of the moon and sister to the god Apollo, namesake of Nasa’s first moon missions, the Artemis programme will see the construction of the Lunar Gateway – a new space station where astronauts will be able to live and work.
The build of the Lunar Gateway will include crucial contributions from Thales Alenia Space UK (TAS-UK) and Imperial College London, provided with backing from the UK Space Agency.
Mark Thomas, 33, from South Carolina, USA, watched the launch from Banana Creek at the Kennedy Space Center and shared a video of the moment to Twitter.
The teacher tweeted: “Witnessing the most phenomenal engineering feat of our time. Worth the wait.
“Prime seating at Kennedy Space Center with some fantastic engineers that put blood, sweat, and tears into this. We are going back to the moon.”
Witnessing the most phenomenal engineering feat of our time. Worth the wait. Prime seating at Kennedy Space Center with some fantastic engineers that put blood, sweat, and tears into this. We are going back to the moon. #Artemis1 #Artemis #NASA pic.twitter.com/k9kvmHvPC1
— Mark Thomas (@OFFtheMARK8789) November 16, 2022
Mr Thomas told the PA news agency: “Stunned, honestly. It’s something you can’t truly appreciate until you see it and feel it. And you do feel it. The bleachers beneath our feet were shaking and the shockwave of sound pounds in your chest.
“I teach high school mathematics and engineering so I’ve always had a rooted interest in problem solving and design… and the Artemis missions are the ultimate examples in those categories.”