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After a night of uncertainty, NASA's Artemis moon rocket takes to the skies

NASA's new moon rocket lifts off from Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. This launch is the first flight test of the Artemis program.
John Raoux
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AP
NASA's new moon rocket lifts off from Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. This launch is the first flight test of the Artemis program.

The predawn sky over Florida's space coast lit up early Wednesday morning as NASA's new 322-foot-tall moon rocket roared off its launch pad with a few mannequins — but no astronauts — strapped into a crew capsule.

This white, bell-shaped capsule, called Orion, has now embarked on a 25-day test flight that will take it around the moon and back. The approximately 1.2-million-mile trip will bring NASA one step closer to achieving its goal of returning humans to the lunar surface.

"For once, I might be speechless," launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson told her team at Kennedy Space Center, after they had sent the rocket on its way. "You have earned your place in history. You're part of a first. It doesn't come along very often, once in a career maybe. But we are all part of something incredibly special."

The Orion capsule will orbit the moon, coming within about 80 miles of its surface, and its maximum distance from the Earth will be 268,553 miles — surpassing a record set by NASA's Apollo 13 mission in 1970.

A step toward the 1st woman on the moon

If all goes well, the capsule will return to Earth faster and hotter than any human-rated spacecraft ever. It will splash down in the Pacific Ocean on December 11, off the coast of San Diego, Calif. And in just a couple of years, this massive rocket and the capsule could be blasting off with people on board.

The dramatic, long-awaited rocket launch, swathed in darkness, marked a major milestone for NASA, which is hoping to put the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface by 2025.

Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, says he watched the launch from a rooftop, in the company of a number of astronauts. "I'm telling you, we've never seen such a tail of flame. There were a bunch there that would like to be on that rocket," he told reporters in a post-launch press briefing.

The space agency has named its lunar program Artemis, after the twin sister of Apollo, and hopes to reclaim some of the glory of its Apollo-era moon landings. NASA's last Apollo mission to the moon happened nearly a half-century ago, in December of 1972, when the venerable Saturn V rocket thundered up from the Florida launch site.

Guests at the Banana Creek watch the launch of NASA's Space Launch System rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft on the Artemis I flight test, early Wednesday, Nov. 16 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Fla.
Keegan Barber / Nasa via AP
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Nasa via AP
Guests at the Banana Creek watch the launch of NASA's Space Launch System rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft on the Artemis I flight test, early Wednesday, Nov. 16 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Fla.

It's been a rocky road

NASA has been trying to launch its Artemis rocket for months, but was stymied by technical glitches and two hurricanes.

A previous attempt to get this rocket off the ground, in September, had to be stopped because of a hydrogen leak. NASA mission managers never did figure out its root cause for sure.

This time around, when another hydrogen leak cropped up, a "red crew" of three workers had to go out to the launch pad, to the bottom of the dangerous, fully-fueled rocket. They tightened some bolts on a valve that apparently may have been "visibly loose," according to part of an exchange captured on a hot mic. Other glitches that bedeviled the team included the loss of signal at a critical radar site that was traced to a faulty Ethernet switch.

The space agency has been working towards this launch for over a decade, since it retired its space shuttle program in 2011.

Back then, Congress told NASA to build a giant new rocket, one capable of venturing to deep space, and to use technology from the old shuttles as much as possible to help support the nation's space industry.

It comes with a big price tag

But this rocket has taken years longer to build than expected, and it's also proven unexpectedly costly.

NASA's inspector general, Paul Martin, has said that each of its first three flights will cost more than $4 billion — and that doesn't include billions more in development costs.

His office estimated that, through fiscal year 2025, NASA will spend $93 billion on the Artemis effort — a price tag that lots of people in the spaceflight community see as unsustainable.

Still, regardless of any mixed feelings surrounding this rocket, successfully launching it may offer a sign that NASA is making progress towards once again having the moon as a real destination for humanity.

That's something many space enthusiasts have longed for ever since astronaut Eugene Cernan took the last steps on its dusty surface, saying, "we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

People at Veterans Memorial park watch as the Artemis I unmanned lunar rocket lifts off at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, on Nov. 16 in Titusville, Fla.
Marco Bello / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
People at Veterans Memorial park watch as the Artemis I unmanned lunar rocket lifts off at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, on Nov. 16 in Titusville, Fla.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.