DISPATCH: The Dramatic First Launch of America’s New Moon Rocket, Artemis 1

Artemis 1 launch

Artemis 1 launches from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

TITUSVILLE, Florida — At first the rocket’s flames flashed orange and illuminated the dark sky like a 1:47 a.m. sunrise. The people around us gasped and cried and shouted, “Go, go, go” as the rocket climbed higher and higher from NASA’s launchpad 39B, 11 miles away. One boy exclaimed, “Oh my God,” over and over. The Artemis 1 moon rocket’s engines spewed fiery plumes that shimmered on the surface of the Indian River.

From where we stood on the river’s western shore, the Artemis 1 space launch system, the world’s most powerful rocket, showed as an orange orb rising in total silence for the first full minute of flight. The flames illuminated the faces around us; faces that tilted up and up as they tracked the rocket’s rise. After that first muted minute, a crackling snarl finally smacked against our eardrums. Thrilled, the crowd around us hooted and hollered. Others sat silently and shook their heads. The rocket’s glare illuminated tear trails down one man’s cheeks.

The rocket roared and rose and at one point the orange glow of its engines seemed to merge with the quarter moon, perched directly above the Artemis launch arc from our perspective.

Artemis 1 launch

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft launches on the Artemis I flight test, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, from Launch Complex 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA.

Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA.

The Artemis 1 space launch system is the rocket that will carry Americans back to the moon in 2024. The rocket’s maiden flight early Tuesday morning propelled an unmanned Orion spacecraft briefly into Earth orbit before accelerating onward to the moon as part of a 25.5-day-long test mission.

The moon-bound Orion spaceship carries a suite of test devices, including a human mannequin named “Commander Moonikin Campos” in honor of NASA engineer Arturo Campos, who helped bring the stricken Apollo 13 spacecraft safely back to Earth in 1970.

According to NASA, Tuesday’s test flight has so far been a success. Even so, the countdown to liftoff was at times dramatic — particularly since mechanical issues had already scrubbed two prior launch attempts.

Tropical Storm Nicole delayed the third launch bid, originally set for Nov. 14. NASA launch control had a two-hour window beginning at 1:04 a.m. on Nov. 16 to accomplish the maiden Artemis launch. At one point in the countdown, a team of maintainers known as the “red crew” traveled to the fueled rocket to repair a hydrogen fuel valve. Then, of all things, a bad Ethernet switch at launch range control threatened to cancel the mission. Yet the NASA team successfully found solutions to overcome each hurdle and, after an extended hold, resumed the final 10-minute countdown for a 1:47 a.m. launch.

Tuesday’s test flight, coming a half-century after the final Apollo moon mission, marked the beginning of a new era in American space exploration.

Standing 322 feet tall (17 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty), the Artemis space launch system, or SLS, is about 40 feet shorter than the Apollo program’s legendary Saturn V moon rocket. Even so, the Artemis SLS produces about 15% more thrust than the Saturn V at liftoff, making it the most powerful rocket ever to reach orbit.

For some in the crowd along the Titusville riverside on Tuesday, the Artemis launch evoked memories of the 1960s space race and the dramatic days of the Apollo moon program.

“It’s about time we go back to the moon,” said George Shores, 76, from Daytona Beach, Florida, who was in Titusville with his wife, Anne-Marie, to watch the Artemis 1 launch.

“There’s nothing like a night launch,” he said. “There’s nothing like it.”

Artemis 1 launch

Spectators in Titusville, Florida, wait for Artemis 1 to launch on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

For those who chose to make the trek to Florida’s space coast to watch the launch up close, the spectacle did not disappoint.

“This was amazing. It was unbelievable how bright it was,” said Dave Hennessy, who watched the Artemis launch from Titusville. “The brightness surprised me the most, and the delay between the sound and the impact.”

Hennessy said he was “absolutely proud” about NASA’s resumption of lunar spaceflights. “A whole new generation gets to experience the moon,” he said.

For my wife, Lilly, and me, Tuesday’s launch was a particularly special occasion. Lilly, who is Ukrainian, just returned to the US for the first time in three years. I hadn’t been stateside in more than a year. Witnessing the launch together was an unforgettable way for us to celebrate our safe return to US soil after a tough year in wartime Ukraine.

While living under the threat of Russian strikes, we’d learned to fear a rocket’s roar. This morning, that crackling snarl inspired altogether different emotions.

“It was very spectacular,” Lilly said after Artemis 1 arced out of sight into orbit. “A rocket that does not carry a destructive force but has the ability to create something new and beautiful. What a contrast.”

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Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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