Blogs  |  12.12.2022

This One’s For the Artemis Generation

I’ve been to space many, many times during my seven years working at Challenger Center. Of course, this has been at Challenger Learning Centers where we simulate space missions to excite students about science, technology, engineering, and math every day.

In early November, I went to Mars with a group of eighth graders at our Center in lower Manhattan. Though I’ve experienced Challenger Center’s Expedition Mars many times, I found myself holding my breath with the students as we watched to see if we successfully landed our spacecraft on the Red Planet. There’s something magical about working together to achieve such a seemingly impossible feat.

A week later, I held my breath again as I watched another seemingly impossible feat: the launch of NASA’s Artemis I.

Preparing for Launch

Challenger Center has partnered with NASA in many ways since our founding in 1986. Earlier this summer, Challenger Center’s President and CEO Dr. Lance Bush was invited to join NASA for the Artemis I launch. He started his career designing space vehicles for NASA and later managed international cooperation among countries as they commercialized the International Space Station. He chose me to be his guest.

We shifted our travel plans multiple times as the Artemis launch date moved and felt lucky that the November 16 date still worked for us. We arrived in Cape Canaveral on November 15 and patiently waited for nighttime to fall. At around 8:00 p.m., we boarded a bus to the Banana Creek Launch Viewing Area, which is adjacent to the Apollo/Saturn V Center on the Kennedy Space Center property.

On the ride to Banana Creek, there were hundreds of cars parked along the sides of a causeway and along roads near the launch site. People were tailgating with food trucks and barbeques. It complemented the celebratory atmosphere on the bus. While the launch had been scrubbed many times, there was a general feeling of optimism, a sense that “tonight is the night.”

The celebratory vibes continued when we arrived at Banana Creek, where we spent a couple of hours wandering beneath the Saturn V rocket and visiting the Apollo exhibits, remembering our past missions to the Moon.

At midnight, we walked outside to the bleachers facing Artemis I and were lucky enough to snag a couple of front-row seats. There was a big screen at one end broadcasting the launch. Like everyone, we tried to take photos of Artemis I on the launch pad—she seemed so close and looked so beautiful—but an iPhone camera could never do it justice.

3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . Liftoff!

As the 1:00 a.m. launch time neared, the crowd grew anxious. There was a problem with an ethernet cable and a small fuel leak, but both were resolved. You could feel everyone exhale whenever a positive update was announced.

Finally, it was time for the last launch status check-in when each team in mission control gives a “go” for launch. The person requesting each “go” was Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the first woman to serve as a NASA launch director. Her presence, and the Artemis mission goal of landing the first woman and person of color on the Moon, was utterly moving. Her final words at the end of the launch status check were, “For the Artemis Generation, this is for you.”

I couldn’t help but think of my 8-year-old daughter and her friends at that moment.

As we counted down, I silently debated whether or not to film the launch on my phone. I wanted to be present and feel it, but I also knew I would want to re-live this moment and share it with my kids. So, I decided to hold the phone low—not watch through the screen—and hope I captured it while watching live.

We counted down . . . 10, 9, 8 . . . and then it was off. The night sky lit up as if it was daytime. The rocket’s roar shook us. Before long, it was a fiery orange dot in the sky and we could hear mission control again, giving us status updates and telling us what they expected to happen next.

At one point, there was mention of the RS-25 engines and a person in the mostly silent crowd whooped happily. I imagine it was an Aerojet Rocketdyne employee who helped build those engines. I held my breath for all those in the crowd for whom this launch was personal: those who directly contributed to the design, production, and preparation for Artemis I over many, many years.

After about 3 minutes, it was over. The elated, exhausted crowd dispersed to the buses. As soon as I sat down, I put my headphones on and tried to hold back tears as I watched the video on my phone again and again. I didn’t sleep much that night.

The Beginning of Our Return to the Moon

Days later, I still teared up as I described the experience to my daughter’s best friend, an 8-year-old lover of space and science. I told her, “It could be you, Annabelle. You could be that first girl on the Moon.”

I continued to follow Artemis I online, cheering with each milestone it hit, including reaching the farthest distance from Earth at nearly 270,000 miles from our home planet.

Now, the Orion spacecraft is safely back on Earth, having done exactly what thousands of people worked together to plan and make possible. Achieving feats like this gives us—the American public—the same sense of self-efficacy and identity that we try to create in students through Challenger Center’s simulations of space missions. We can do it. We are amazing. Let’s keep our students inspired and see what else we can achieve.