Artemis I: A visual tour of the most powerful rocket ever built

NASA’s uncrewed Artemis I mission successfully completed a journey that propelled the Orion spacecraft around the moon and back to Earth. Explore NASA’s new rocket and trace the trajectory of the crew capsule’s 25.5-day trek through space.

Sitting in the commander's seat of Orion was Commander Moonikin Campos, a suited mannequin that collected data on what future human crews might experience on a lunar trip. The mannequin’s name, picked via a public contest, is a nod to Arturo Campos, a NASA electrical power subsystem manager who aided in Apollo 13's safe return to Earth.

Commander Campos wore the new Orion Crew Survival System. The suit, designed for astronauts to wear during launch and reentry, includes two radiation sensors. The commander's post also had sensors in place behind the seat and headrest to track acceleration and vibration for the duration of the mission.

Two "phantoms" named Helga and Zohar also rode along in Orion. These mannequin torsos are made of materials that mimic the soft tissue, organs and bones of a woman. The two torsos each have more than 5,600 sensors and 34 radiation detectors that measured how much radiation exposure occurred during the mission. Zohar wore AstroRad, a radiation protection vest, to test how effective it could be if future crews encounter a solar storm.

Artemis I also carried 120 pounds (54.4 kilograms) of mementos, including Apollo 11 memorabilia, toys, patches, pins and other items of cultural significance in its Official Flight Kit. Snoopy served as the Zero Gravity Indicator, and the toy began floating in the Orion capsule once it reached microgravity.

The pressurized crew module, measuring 11 feet tall and 16.5 feet wide (3.4 meters tall and 5 meters wide), carried Commander Moonikin Campos in the commander’s seat and “phantoms” Helga and Zohar in the crew positions. The mission team designed the crew module to accommodate four to six astronauts. It has 12 thrusters and weighed in at over 20,000 pounds (9,072 kilograms) at liftoff.

The European Space Agency’s service module housed the primary propulsion, power and life support resources needed for the Orion crew module. Equipped with four solar arrays, the ESA service module generated enough electricity to power two three-bedroom homes. In addition to the main engine, which propelled the spacecraft to a distant retrograde orbit around the moon and put it on a path to return to Earth, there were 32 other engines that assisted in course correction and fine altitude adjustments.

Along for the ride were 10 shoebox-size CubeSats. The small satellites had been tucked into the stage adapter ring and were deployed after Orion reached space. But after being released into orbit, at least four of the satellites failed, including NASA’s CubeSat to Study Solar Particles, or CuSP, and one developed in Japan that would have been the smallest spacecraft to ever make a lunar landing.

The stage adapter connected the Orion crew and service modules to the interim cryogenic propulsion stage. The 45-foot-tall (13.7-meter-tall) ICPS was the modified second stage of a Delta IV rocket. This upper stage of the rocket gave Orion the propulsion it needed in space after the two solid-fuel rocket boosters and core stage of the rocket separated from the spacecraft.

The final component of the Orion spacecraft was the launch abort system. Two of the system’s three engines could have been used to safely return the Orion crew module to Earth if a malfunction or systems failure had occurred during launch. The third engine was used to jettison the launch abort system, which occurred shortly after launch.

The 212-foot-tall (64.6-meter-tall) core stage of the Space Launch System rocket housed two large cryogenic liquid propellant tanks that collectively contained 733,000 gallons (2.8 million liters) of liquid propellant. The core stage, powered by four RS-25 engines, was accompanied by two solid fuel boosters. The SLS rocket lifted off the pad with 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust.

After liftoff, the solid rocket boosters separated from the spacecraft about two minutes into the flight and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, with other components also jettisoned shortly afterward. The core stage of the rocket separated about six minutes later and fell toward the Pacific Ocean, allowing for Orion's solar array wings to deploy.

The perigee raise maneuver occurred about 53 minutes after launch, when the ICPS experienced a burn to raise Orion's altitude so it didn’t reenter the Earth's atmosphere. Shortly after that milestone was the trans-lunar injection burn, when the ICPS boosted Orion's speed from 17,500 miles per hour (28,163 kilometers per hour) to 22,600 miles per hour (36,371 kilometers per hour) to escape the pull of Earth's gravity and set off for the moon.

After this burn, the ICPS separated from Orion and entered an orbit around the sun.

About eight hours later, Orion made its first outbound trajectory correction burn using the European Service Module, which provided the spacecraft with power, propulsion and thermal control. This maneuver put Orion on a path to the moon.

A few days after launch, Orion ventured out to the moon, coming within 81 miles (130 kilometers) of the lunar surface on day six of the journey. The service module placed Orion in a distant retrograde orbit around the moon on day 10.

Orion surpassed the distance record of 248,654 miles (400,169 kilometers) -- set by Apollo 13 in 1970 -- on day 11 when it looped around the moon. The spacecraft achieved its maximum distance from Earth of 268,563 miles (432,210 kilometers) on day 13 when it ventured 40,000 miles (64,373 kilometers) beyond the moon.

This record-breaking milestone was 19,909 miles (32,040 kilometers) farther than Apollo 13's previous record.

Orion made its second-closest approach of the lunar surface, coming within 80 miles (128 kilometers), on December 5. The service module experienced a burn that enabled the moon's gravity to slingshot Orion back on its way to Earth.

Just before reentering Earth's atmosphere, the service module separated from Orion. The spacecraft hit the top of Earth's atmosphere moving at about 25,000 miles per hour (40,233 kilometers per hour), and its heat shield experienced temperatures of nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius).

One of the biggest trials for Orion was testing its heat shield, the largest one ever built.

The heat shield had been tested on Earth, but returning from space was the ultimate test that simulations couldn't completely replicate.

The atmosphere slowed Orion down to about 300 miles per hour (482 kilometers per hour), and a series of parachutes slowed it down to less than 20 miles per hour (32 kilometers per hour) before it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico’s Baja California at 12:40 p.m. ET on December 11.

Splashdown streamed live from NASA's website, collecting views from the 17 cameras aboard the recovery ship and helicopters that were waiting for Orion's return.

The landing and recovery team collected the Orion capsule, and scientists will analyze the data collected by the spacecraft to determine what lessons have been learned before humans return to the moon.