From Outward Odyssey Series authors: Reflections on NASA’s Artemis 1 Launch

Outward Odyssey: A People’s History of Spaceflight provides a popular history of spaceflight from the rocket scientists of the 1930s to today, focusing on the lives of astronauts, cosmonauts, technicians, scientists, and their families. These books bring to life experiences that shaped the lives of astronauts and cosmonauts and forever changed their world and ours.

On this day in 1972, Apollo 17, the record-breaking mission that last saw humans on the moon, launched. Fifty years later, the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission’s Orion capsule is more than halfway through it’s journey to the moon and back. Outward Odyssey authors, Geoffrey Bowman, Colin Burgess, Melvin Croft, Michelle Evans, Francis French, Chris Gainor, David Hitt, Emmeline Paat-Dahlstrom, Christopher Roosa, and John Youskauskas reflect on NASA’s Artemis I mission and what it means for the future of spaceflight.

Geoffrey Bowman is author of A Long Voyage to the Moon (Nebraska, 2021).

NASA's Artemis I rocket mid-launch. A bright circle of light ascends with a trail of gray plumed of smoke.
NASA’s Artemis I mission launched on November 16, 2022 at 12:47 AM CST from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“We have a lift-off and it’s lighting up the area – it’s just like daylight here at Kennedy Space Center as the Saturn V is moving off the pad.”

Those words from NASA’s Chuck Hollinshead, broadcast live on BBC Radio 2, told me what was happening in the early hours of December 7, 1972. But BBC TV had shut down for the night and I had to wait until the first TV news broadcast after school before I got to see Apollo 17 rising majestically into the sky on a dazzling pillar of fire.

Jumping forward (almost) 50 years, history seems to be repeating itself. A NASA Moon-rocket is poised on a night-shrouded pad at KSC. The launch has been delayed. I am sitting in my home at an indecently early hour in the morning. But this time I am watching live TV pictures as the countdown resumes and continues without further interruption.

The moment of lift-off and the rapid acceleration of Artemis 1 into the night sky almost takes me by surprise. The spear of blinding light piercing the thin cloud is mesmerizing. Before I even have a chance to worry about a catastrophic explosion, the boosters have departed and the SLS core-stage is riding smoothly towards orbit. It is an immensely satisfying experience.

The “crew” of Artemis 1 was marginally less talkative than the crew of Apollo 11 en route to the Moon, but each picture transmitted from the spacecraft was worth the proverbial thousand words. Once again, after half a century of waiting, I could see our little blue-and-white home receding into the infinite blackness.  There will be gigabytes of engineering data for NASA to process and analyze after the mission, but for this one-eight-billionth of the human race the key measure of success, eclipsing all else, was the moment when our little planet Earth began to slip out of sight behind the grey arc of the Moon until the live signal cut off.

The adventure continues….

Colin Burgess is the author or editor of several books on spaceflight, including Shattered Dreams: The Lost and Canceled Space Missions (Nebraska, 2019), Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon, Revised Edition (Nebraska, 2016), In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969 (Bison Books, 2010), and Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965 (Bison Books, 2009).

As the Artemis rocket ripped a path through the dark, early morning skies over Florida, I was on the other side of the world, aboard a cruise ship plying the Java Sea en route to Singapore. I was both a passenger and a guest speaker on board, offering my fellow travelers on sea days a pictorial, progressive history of human space exploration in the ship’s theatre. The timing was perfect, as my talk that very evening was on Apollo 11, and I was able to share with the audience the fact that after 52 years, we were once again setting a new course for the moon. As I showed images of the Artemis 1 rocket and Orion spacecraft on the Kennedy launch pad and explained the tentative timetable for the three initial steps in the program, I could sense a growing interest. Mostly seniors, many of whom had witnessed the Apollo 11 mission on TV, they knew surprisingly little about this new program and its objectives. Once I had outlined NASA’s plans to place astronauts back on the moon as early as 2025 the questions came thick and fast. There was even astonishment when I informed them that the next U.S. astronaut to set foot on the moon would be a woman.

While it was a timely thrill being able to tell my audience about Artemis, it struck me that so many people – particularly Americans – know so very little about NASA’s plans to send crews back to the moon. I remember the prevailing excitement when Apollo 11 lifted off on its journey to the moon back in 1969, and I wonder if that global euphoria will be replicated to anywhere near the same extent when the first Artemis/Orion crew carries us back to the moon after more than five decades of waiting and frustration. I know I’ll stand ready to cheer them on. Go Artemis! 

Melvin Croft is coauthor of Come Fly With Us: NASA’s Payload Specialist Program (Nebraska, 2019) and a contributor to Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969–1975 (Nebraska, 2010).

I was fortunate to live during the Apollo era when humans first visited the moon. Those were fascinating times – when the technology was barely capable of meeting an audacious goal. But Orion is different. The uncrewed Orion I will soon return to Earth and splash down in the Pacific Ocean, marking a milestone for the future exploration of space. The next time an Orion spacecraft splashes down in the ocean, there will be astronauts on board. By the end of the following mission, astronauts will have flown around the moon. And then we’re going to stay. The future is here.

Michelle Evans is author of The X-15 Rocket Plane: Flying the First Wings into Space (Nebraska, 2013).

Close-up of NASA's SLS Rocket, an American flag billows in the foreground.
A close-up of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the agency’s most powerful to date.

Back in the 1960s this nation developed the capability to put people on the Moon. One aspect of that was the largest rocket yet flown, the Saturn V. The Russians tried to one up us with their N-1, but every launch failed. Not until November 16, 2022 has the capability of the Saturn V ever been exceeded. That was the launch of Artemis 1 on an uncrewed test flight to the Moon and back, which will hopefully and eventually lead to humans finally returning to our nearest neighbor in space within the next few years, after a neglect of more than half a century.

I admit to the awe of watching the launch finally happen, even if it was years behind schedule, and billions over budget. I’ve had the privilege of seeing a great many rocket launches in person during my career, including several from the Space Shuttle program. Every one has left an emotional mark. I wish fervently that I could have seen a Saturn V leave the Earth, but never had that opportunity. I will forever be jealous of my wife, who did get to see such a launch with the first mission to the Moon, Apollo 8, in December 1968.

I admit to not having the same emotional feelings for Artemis that I’ve had for past launches. Maybe it’s just the excessive time and budget that it took to get us this far, but it is also very hard not to have the feeling that maybe it will eventually accomplish its mission. I hope that is the case. I desperately want it to succeed, and to see us finally return to the Moon, to set up permanent settlements for humans off the Earth. I especially want to see us continue our voyage outward to the stars. Seeing the images of the Earth beamed home as the Orion spacecraft swept around the Moon, dipping below the horizon, then eventually re-emerging from the inky black of the far side, definitely does start to stir that emotion I want to have again.

Ad Inexplorata!

Francis French (@F_French) is coauthor of The Light of Earth: Reflections on a Life in Space (Nebraska, 2021), In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969 (Bison Books, 2010), Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965 (Bison Books, 2009), and editor of Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele (Nebraska, 2017).

I was born between Apollo missions to the moon. When I was in school, we were told we’d be the generation that went back to the moon and on to Mars.

Years later, teaching in schools and science centers, I found myself saying the same thing to another generation of kids. As time kept rolling, I wondered – would this simply be something one generation said to the next? Would it ever happen?

We still haven’t seen humans fly on NASA’s new moon rocket and spacecraft. But we’re seeing photographs taken way out in deep space from a vehicle that could have carried them. We’re seeing images equivalent to those taken by people around the moon in the year I was born.

And I have spent a lot of time with the kids who are working on the Artemis program. Yes, they are adults. But to me they seem like kids. Many are hard-partying, socially gregarious extroverts in their twenties and thirties who stay up late and drink a lot. And yet, somehow, they wake up early and head to work clear-eyed and build things that journey to other worlds. They’re fun. They’re terrifyingly smart. Working on projects that end up flung out into the solar system is second nature to them. I love chatting with them. It gives me hope.

At last, the story I was told in school appears to be coming true for these kids.

Chris Gainor (@ChrisGainor) is the author of To a Distant Day: The Rocket Pioneers (Nebraska, 2013).

Watching Artemis 1 rise atop the Space Launch System from the darkness of the Kennedy Space Center on November 16, I inevitably recalled the nighttime launch of the final Apollo expedition to the Moon. As Artemis 1 returns to Earth, we are marking the 50th anniversary of that flight, Apollo 17.

Beyond the two launches and the fact that Artemis 1 flew to the vicinity of the Moon, Artemis 1’s differences from Apollo flights stand out to me more than any similarities. No Apollo flew near the Moon without a crew, and those that had crews flew in very different trajectories than Artemis 1’s distant retrograde orbit around the Moon.

During the nearly five decades between Apollo 17 and Artemis 1, the Moon was visited by a number of robotic probes from the U.S., Russia, China, India, Europe, Japan, and Israel. Of particular note are Chinese robotic spacecraft that have orbited the Moon, returned samples and even landed on the Moon’s far side, and U.S. spacecraft such as Clementine and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Those spacecraft vastly increased our knowledge of the Moon and sent back an impressive array of images of the lunar surface from various distances. They have good stories, most of them little known.

Artemis 1 has provided a tantalizing preview of upcoming Artemis missions that will carry humans around the Moon and then to its surface. Various private efforts such as Starship are also being prepared to take humans to the Moon, and Chinese taikonauts will probably follow. How all these programs will play out remain to be seen.

I look on Artemis 1 as probably the last in a long line of robotic missions prior to the human return to the Moon. Bring on Artemis 2 and its crew!

David Hitt (@davidhitt) is coauthor of Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years 1972-1986 (Nebraska, 2014) and Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story (Bison Books, 2011).

David Hitt is smiling in the foreground, behind him is NASA's SLS rocket, a crowd of onlookers, and a clear blue sky.
David Hitt in front of NASA’s SLS rocket that holds the Orion space capsule.

Forty-nine years. Eleven months. Ten days.

A lot can happen in 49 years, 11 months, and 10 days. A lifetime. More than a lifetime – generations.

On December 7, 1972, the Apollo 17 mission left Earth on the way to the Moon for the final lunar landing of the Apollo program, powered by a Saturn V rocket that turned the night of its launch briefly into day with a brilliant column of flame.

I was born less than three years later. In my life, there have been no Saturn V rockets launching. In my life, there have been no Moon landings.

Some would downplay the accomplishments of the ensuing decades, would describe the subsequent years of space exploration as being “stuck” in Earth orbit. As one might guess from the co-author of books about Skylab and the space shuttle, I respectfully nonconcur with that assessment. The unique microgravity environment in orbit allows opportunities for science impossible on the surface of any world. If we have been “stuck” improving life on Earth in countless ways, there are far worse ways to be stuck.

Intellectually, my mind holds that belief passionately. Emotionally, my heart can be jealous, of Saturn V rocket launches and Moon landings I never saw.

Forty-nine years, eleven months, ten days after the launch of Apollo 17, I stood on a bleacher at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and watched as a rocket with more thrust at launch than the Saturn V turned night into day with a brilliant column of flame, hurling a crew capsule toward the Moon for the first time in just under half a century.

That capsule was uncrewed. The next one won’t be. And the one after that will carry the next humans to put footprints on the lunar surface.

The miracle is not to live in an age that sees us return to the Moon. The miracle is this – earlier this year, I visited Kennedy Space Center and saw there two rockets sitting on two pads, a short distance apart. One, the Space Launch System that launched Orion to the Moon on Artemis I. The other, a SpaceX Falcon 9 poised to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

The sight made both my mind and my heart happy.

Now, as before, as JFK said, we choose to go to the Moon.

But, as he also said, we choose to go to the Moon, AND do the other things. So continues the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom (@epaatdahlstrom) is coauthor of Realizing Tomorrow: The Path to Private Spaceflight (Nebraska, 2011).

Fifty years ago, when we last set foot on the Moon, it was a race between two superpowers motivated by national pride and prestige. Amazingly fulfilled in an age without personal computers and the internet by white shirted men with pocket pens and slide rules. Back then, the rules of the game were created by nation-states, and “steely-eyed missile men” ruled the launch pad. That was then. Today, the world has changed. Accelerating technologies has democratized space technology. So much so that it is now pretty much off the shelf, and individuals and New Space start-ups working in garages can compete with space agencies and big aerospace companies. The definition of the space industry has changed and a new global economy which not only include the US, Russia, and China, but emerging and developing countries from across the globe are developing space ecosystems in their own backyards.

Today the return of the NASA Orion spacecraft is the first of many missions brought about by collaborations between agencies in Europe and Asia, to academic and research institutions around the world. Today we take for granted that the first precursor mission CAPSTONE was developed by a small start-up company Advanced Space in Colorado and launched by a small satellite launch company Rocket Lab from a private spaceport in New Zealand.  Instead of traditional aerospace companies commissioned to build fully government-owned missions, NASA has leveraged private companies through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, allowing small and large space companies to bid and deliver purely private missions to the lunar surface. Instead of powerful nations racing for national glory, this return to the Moon is bound by collaboration and partnerships where spacecraft like SpaceX Starship and payloads are being prepared big or small by old and new players in the industry.

Our motivation to return and stay has captured the imagination of space entrepreneurs and their investors, allowing them to develop deep technology and new business models that would propel a cis-lunar economy in years, not decades. The over a hundred international private and government missions destined for the Lunar surface within the next five years is a testament to the renewed commitment globally.

The launch of SLS Artemis-1 was highly anticipated but not without challenges. Yet it serves as a catalyst to all the “firsts” that are yet to come. The first space stations around the Moon, the thousands of robots that will be the building blocks for creating habitats on the lunar surface, to the diverse humans who will land and settle there. And the Moon becomes a steppingstone for humanity’s expansion into the solar system, giving the next generation other worlds to explore and inhabit. So, as we see this pioneering spacecraft come back with amazing images of what’s in store to explore, it’s return also reminds us that we do all these for the preservation and sustainability of our own planet, and for the future generations of explorers and settlers from planet Earth.

Colonel Christopher Roosa, USMCR (Ret) is the author of Son of Apollo: The Adventures of a Boy Whose Father Went to the Moon (Nebraska, 2022).

Watching the launch of Artemis 1 on TV was a spectacular sight. Let’s remember that approximately 65% of the US population was not alive when Apollo 17, the last lunar mission to land on the Moon, lit up the night sky for its launch in 1972. For those of us old enough to remember, those were special days. Now, 50 years later, Artemis 1 is finally returning to the Moon as a test flight for future manned landings on its surface. It’s hard to believe it’s been such a long time since we’ve been to the Moon. I saw one comment by a spectator to the Artemis 1 launch – what impressed him most was the sound of the rocket, its deafening booming noise that reverberated through everything around it. It reminds me. I have seen two things that don’t come across true-to-life on TV: one is a Saturn V launch and the other is the burning oil fields of Kuwait during Desert Storm. 

As I mention in Son of Apollo, a large rocket launch is a multisensory event. The intensity of the flames hurts your eyes, the wall of sound hits and shakes your body and the ground, and the very loud popping noise pings though your ears. The event consumes your body. It is truly an unbelievable moment. Artemis 1 launched with approximately one million more pounds of thrust than a Saturn V. The Saturn V had 7.5 million pounds of thrust and Artemis 1 had 8.8 million pounds of thrust. I can only hope someday to experience that type of launch. I commend NASA for once again getting us on a path to return to the Moon.

John Youskauskas is coauthor of Come Fly With Us: NASA’s Payload Specialist Program (Nebraska, 2019).

John Youskauskas smiles in the foreground wearing a T-shirt that reads ARES. Behind him is NASA's SLS rocket, green shrubbery and a blue sky.
John Youskauskas in front of NASA’s SLS rocket.

In late March of this year, I stood atop a concrete structure at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida known as Camera Stop A/B, located about a mile southeast of Launch Complex 39B. Towering high above the mobile launcher was the Space Launch System rocket, which was poised to fly the Artemis 1 mission, the first spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to the moon since the Saturn V of the Apollo days. It was an impressive sight. I had been at that same location several times during the space shuttle program but this machine, although composed of shuttle-era hardware like the solid rocket boosters and main engines, was far more immense.

The bus that drove us out to the pad took a slow, looping path back past the historic launch pad right along the perimeter fence where, looking up at the rocket from ground level, its sheer size was impressive. It was hard to believe that it was real. America, after many fits and starts, once again had a moon rocket ready to fly on the pad, and that was an Orion spacecraft, which had been in development since the early 2000’s, at the top of the stack. It was an unforgettable feeling to be that close to history in the making.

I was not able to be at the launch but as I write this, in the 17 days, 13 hours and 54 minutes that have passed since Artemis 1 left the launch pad, the world has been treated to incredible images of the Earth receding as the globe of the moon grew larger. As if straight out of a science fiction movie, a slow motion eclipse of a half-faced Earth behind the brownish, pockmarked face of the lunar far side was spell-binding to watch. The Orion spacecraft has traveled further from planet Earth than any human-rated ship ever has, and has performed flawlessly. Ahead still lays a critical burn to return to Earth, and the searing 25,000 mph plunge through the atmosphere to an ocean splashdown.

I hesitate to say this is the first step of “going back to the moon.” The pioneering generation that blazed the trail in the years of Apollo is separated by over five decades from what NASA now refers to as the “Artemis Generation.” This new cadre of leaders, entrepreneurs, engineers, trainers, and astronauts are truly learning to do this all over again, using technology unforeseen in the 1960’s, and with an eye to permanently expanding humankind’s presence into the solar system. We are truly moving forward to the moon, and eventually far beyond.

Photos courtesy of David Hitt and John Youskauskas.

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