The 26-day mission around the moon and back marks a critical step by the U.S. space agency.

Like a powerful beacon lighting the way to a distant shore, the Artemis I spacecraft sliced across the dark Florida sky early Wednesday setting a course for the moon and carrying with it dreams of a new chapter in human space flight.

The 1:47 a.m. launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center comes one month shy of 50 years since an astronaut last set foot on the lunar surface, marking the end of the Apollo program. And while Artemis I carries no crew – in place of astronauts its capsule is occupied by three mannequins – the 26-day mission around the moon and back marks a critical step by the U.S. space agency toward repeating that historic feat and then surpassing it with visits to more daring landing sites for longer periods of time.

Ultimately, the stated objective of the Artemis program is to lay the groundwork for human missions to Mars. The timeline for that distant goal is far from set, but it hinges more than ever on the performance of a spacecraft that is now hurtling toward the moon at more than 36,000 kilometres an hour.

At a practical level, the mission serves as the first complete test of NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) – a rocket designed to be the workhorse of future lunar missions – along with the Orion spacecraft, which will ferry astronauts into lunar orbit. A future element of the system, the lander whose job it will be to bring humans down to the moon’s surface, is still in development and will see its debut in a future test flight.

While NASA has a long history of lunar exploration that dates back to the golden age of space flight, Artemis represents a more sophisticated reworking of the Apollo-era hardware and flight plan into something that can support a routine human presence on the moon. It is also the realization of a longer term goal of the U.S. space agency and its partners, including Canada, to look beyond the International Space Station and low Earth orbit and carve out a role for humans that extends well beyond our planet and its immediate vicinity.

The long-awaited launch was originally scheduled for late August but was delayed by technical issues and then delayed again when Hurricane Ian forced NASA to pulled the 98-metre-tall rocket off its launch pad. A subsequent encounter with Hurricane Nicole last week led to a further postponement of two days.

Earlier on Wednesday morning, the launch team had to contend with a few final glitches that delayed lift off by some 43 minutes. The most significant of these was an intermittent hydrogen leak, which required calling in a “red team” to enter the rocket’s blast zone and tighten the bolts around a valve. Within minutes of the work being completed, launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson polled her team and declared that Artemis I was a go for launch.

It was a spectacular departure, even when viewed over the internet via live stream. Within seconds of clearing its supporting tower, the massive rocket was lost in an incandescent glow, which lit up the night and looked more like a comet jetting into the heavens than anything built by human hands.

It took only eight minutes for the SLS to ascend to orbit around Earth, propelled by a liquid fuel core stage with two solid fuel booster rockets strapped alongside. The launch configuration is reminiscent of the one used by NASA’s space shuttle program for more than 30 years, but it delivers about 13-per-cent more total thrust. Just two minutes after launch, the boosters, now spent, were jettisoned as planned. The core stage separated six minutes later, leaving the Orion spacecraft to coast for more than an hour until it was in position to fire its interim propulsion stage. The 18-minute burn put Orion on course for the moon.

Evoking the historic significance of the Artemis program’s maiden flight, Ms. Blackwell-Thompson later called the moment “incredibly special” and told her team “what you have done today will inspire generations to come.” She also notched a bit of NASA history in her own right as the first woman in the launch director’s role.

In addition to launching the U.S.-built Orion crew capsule and its European service module, the flight included the release of 10 miniature satellites built by universities, private companies and international partners, with various objectives that include mapping the moon and testing out assorted space technologies.

At an early morning news briefing, NASA administrator and former U.S. senator Bill Nelson rated the launch an A-plus but added that it was just the first step in a longer journey to bring astronauts back to the moon half a century after the end of the Apollo program.

“It took a long time to get here,” Mr. Nelson said. “And we still have a long ways to go.”

The launch was closely followed at Canadian Space Agency headquarters in Longueuil, Que., where a group of approximately 30 were on hand for a live viewing of the event.

Among them was David Saint-Jacques, the most recent Canadian astronaut to fly aboard the International Space Station, who said the launch brought back memories of the Apollo program, which first inspired him to dream about going to space.

“This is not just any launch,” he said. “This is really the beginning of the Artemis generation, just like I was a kid of the Apollo generation. It’s a new era.”

But whereas Canadians were mainly spectators to the U.S. Apollo program, Canada is a partner in Artemis. A successful flight of Artemis I will set the stage for Artemis II, the first crewed mission in the program, with a launch currently set for 2024. That mission will include a Canadian astronaut – the first to venture beyond the space station. The mission will see the Orion crew travel around the moon as a test of the system with humans on board, much like the Apollo 8 mission in 1968 that preceded the first lunar landing.

In exchange for the opportunity, Canada is providing a more autonomous and updated version of the space station’s Canadarm II for the Lunar Gateway, a smaller station that will orbit the moon and be used in later phases of the Artemis program. The delivery date for the arm is currently set for 2027.

Meanwhile, by 2025, NASA hopes to follow up with Artemis III, which will include a lunar landing. The space agency has already indicated that the crew that reaches the surface will include the first female astronaut and the first astronaut of colour to walk on the moon.

For now, all eyes will be on Artemis I as it ticks off a series of important engineering milestones.

On Monday the Orion spacecraft is expected to pass within about 100 kilometres of the lunar surface, making its closest approach to the moon for the entire journey. It will then enter a long elliptical orbit around the moon, which will last several more days and provide an opportunity to test Orion’s key systems under real flight conditions. It will then return to Earth, for a crucial test of the crew capsule’s heat shield and parachutes.

In a NASA podcast interview earlier this year, Nujoud Merancy, chief of the exploration mission planning office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the duration of this part of the mission was dictated in part by a desire to gather as much information as possible from Orion’s first flight. “The more data the better,” Ms. Merancy said. “We don’t have crew on board so this is kind of a chance where you can stress things out a little bit and not be risking human lives.”

The Artemis program also has its share of critics. Earlier this year, astronomers Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees published The End of Astronauts, a book that argues that space exploration beyond low Earth orbit should be conducted by robots rather than people, because of the high cost of keeping humans alive in space.

Meanwhile, in her memoir Escaping Gravity, former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver revealed how she tried to shift the agency away from developing Orion and the costly SLS program in favour of working with private-sector companies to support more innovative and sustainable approaches to lunar exploration. U.S. government estimates put the price tag for the Artemis program at about US$93-billion through 2025.

Even so, if the program can maintain its momentum following Wednesday’s launch, Artemis is likely to play a central role in the next phase of humanity’s relationship with the moon.

As Ms. Merancy said in her interview, “Once you see the smoke and fire, we’re off and running.”

The Globe and Mail, November 16, 2022