NASA now aims to launch massive next-generation rocket on debut flight in early 2022

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NASA is aiming to fly its massive, next-generation rocket, the Space Launch System, for the primary time in February of 2022, a vital take a look at flight on NASA’s journey to ship individuals again to the Moon. However, loads of exams nonetheless want to go nicely earlier than the much-delayed car can lastly take flight.

Confirmation of the brand new goal date, which was rumored in August, comes a day after engineers absolutely stacked the Space Launch System, or SLS, inside NASA’s massive hangar at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Standing at 322 ft excessive, the SLS rises taller than the Statue of Liberty. On prime of the stack is NASA’s Orion crew capsule, a brand new spacecraft that’s been developed to carry individuals into deep area. However, when the SLS flies for the primary time subsequent 12 months, there gained’t be any individuals on board. The take a look at mission will ship an empty Orion capsule on a four- to six-week-long journey across the Moon.

SLS’ debut flight is named Artemis I, the primary main flight in NASA’s Artemis program. If the flight is profitable, the SLS and Orion’s subsequent mission will probably be Artemis II, which is able to carry NASA astronauts on an analogous trajectory across the Moon. The program will culminate with touchdown the primary lady and the primary individual of coloration on the floor of the Moon. During the Trump administration, Vice President Mike Pence challenged NASA to make this touchdown occur as early as 2024.

That timeline has since been referred to as into query, given the complexity of the mission and quite a few delays. Originally, NASA envisioned the SLS flying for the first time back in 2017, however its debut has been persistently pushed again repeatedly due to improper management and cost overruns. In the meantime, NASA additionally wants a lunar lander to convey individuals down to the floor of the Moon, which the SLS and Orion can’t do alone. The area company awarded SpaceX a contract to develop its new vehicle, called Starship, to take individuals to the Moon’s floor. But the car nonetheless has a protracted highway of growth forward, and lawsuits filed by competitor Blue Origin, which didn’t obtain the NASA contract, have sophisticated the method. Then there may be nonetheless the matter of growing new spacesuits, which could also hold up the timeline.

The Space Launch System full stacked inside NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building.
NASA/Frank Michaux

Despite all that, NASA hasn’t fairly given up on the 2024 goal date, even after Joe Biden grew to become president. “It’s a stretch, it’s a challenge, but the schedule is 2024,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in June. Nelson additionally recently acknowledged the sheer quantity of labor and obstacles that want to be overcome.

For now, NASA is usually centered on getting Artemis I off the bottom. If all goes nicely, NASA plans to roll out the absolutely stacked SLS out to the launchpad late this 12 months. Early subsequent 12 months, the mission crew will conduct what’s referred to as a moist costume rehearsal, the place they are going to fill the rocket with the identical propellants it should use for flight however with out igniting the rocket’s engines. Once that’s full, NASA will then roll the rocket again to its hangar for extra checks earlier than rolling it to the launchpad once more forward of the flight.

“I tell you I couldn’t be prouder of the team that got us to where we are today, despite the multiple challenges that we faced with COVID and major storms — most recently, Hurricane Ida — and the impacts that had on our testing facilities,” John Honeycutt, the SLS program supervisor at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, mentioned throughout a press convention at the moment.

As of now, Artemis I has three completely different launch home windows: one in February, one in March, and one in April. Each window, dictated by how the Earth is shifting about its axis and the Moon’s rotation round our planet, is roughly 15 days lengthy, with the primary window opening on February twelfth. The timing of the launch inside the window dictates how lengthy Artemis I’ll keep in area, making it both a four-week mission or a six-week mission.

Once Artemis I is full, then comes Artemis II with a goal launch date someday in 2023. For that flight, individuals will probably be on board, which suggests the car will want much more additions, notably a life help system. NASA wouldn’t say whether or not the newest SLS delays have pushed again Artemis II, solely that an replace is on its manner.

“I think the agency is continuing to look at that; we’re evaluating the status of that mission,” Tom Whitmeyer, deputy affiliate administrator for exploration methods growth at NASA, mentioned throughout at the moment’s press convention.

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