After years of development and testing, NASA is finally ready to roll America’s first gigantic SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft to the launch pad this week for the the space agency’s first launch of the Artemis program to return people to the moon. The massive 6 million pound fully stacked vehicle, which stands taller than the Statue of Liberty at 322 feet, is scheduled to start rolling out of NASA’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:00pm Eastern on Thursday, March 17.
This first mission itself won’t be crewed, but will instead be a shakedown flight to validate that the entire integrated system and mission to lunar orbit and back works as designed, before NASA puts the first crew onboard for Artemis-2.
Set to launch late this spring or early summer, Artemis-1 will send Orion farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown; some 280,000 miles from Earth and thousands of miles beyond the Moon on a mission lasting 4-6 weeks.
Upon arriving at the moon, Orion will fly about 62 miles above the surface, and then use the Moon’s gravitational force to propel it into a deep retrograde orbit about 40,000 miles above the surface, where it will fly and test for 6 days before brushing past the surface again at 60 miles to perform its engine firing to break away from the moon’s gravity and return to Earth.
Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station, and will return home faster and hotter than any crew-rated spacecraft before it.
“This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It will blaze a trail that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission.”
Engineers and technicians have been busy integrating the launch vehicle and spacecraft inside the VAB since late last year, when the core stage was delivered on a barge from Stennis Space Center following a successful Green Run test campaign, where engineers evaluated the integrated functionality and performance of the core stage’s avionics, propulsion and hydraulic systems, culminating in a full-duration test fire of the rocket with its four RS-25 main engines, each of which were last used to launch numerous space shuttle missions.
The engines have since been updated and modified to produce more power and adapted to the new SLS performance requirements and operating environments, complete with new controllers (brains) and additional insulation to protect them from the hotter launch environment of being closer to the rocket’s twin solid rocket boosters.
The two powerhouse SRB’s, another shuttle-derived piece of hardware, have been modified and lengthened over their prior design for launching shuttles, and will provide more than 75 percent of the vehicle’s thrust during the first two minutes of flight to get the huge vehicle off world and help give Orion the necessary velocity to escape Earth’s gravitational pull.
Northrop Grumman also added new avionics, propellant grain design, case insulation, and eliminated the recovery parachutes, and tested the new boosters several times at their facility in Promontory, Utah. The boosters have also been painted with an old-school NASA worm logo for Artemis-1.
All the pieces are in place and NASA says they are ready to roll out the most powerful operational rocket ever made starting at 5pm Eastern on March 17. When it launches, SLS will produce 8.8 million lbs of maximum thrust, 15 percent more thrust than the Saturn V Apollo moon rocket.
Almost all of the 20 platforms surrounding the stacked vehicle inside the VAB have now been retracted, revealing the gigantic rocket standing with its huge Service Tower together atop a Mobile Launch Platform (MLP), and topped off with the Orion spacecraft tucked inside a protective fairing, which will shield it from severe vibrations and sounds during launch. Orion itself is topped off with a torpedo-looking Launch Abort System, which wont be active for this un-crewed mission, but is intended to save future crews by firing motors to pull the spacecraft away from a failing rocket.
This afternoon (March 15), NASA rolled their enormous Crawler Transporter under the MLP and SLS, which will drive the entire vehicle, MLP and service tower out of the VAB and bring it to launch pad 39B at a blazing speed of 0.8 mph. The 4-mile drive will take about 11 hours, occurring overnight to avoid any potential weather which Central FL is well known for during the hot humid days.
The behemoth crawler is 131 feet long and 114 feet wide, larger than a Major League baseball infield, and is powered by locomotive and large electrical power generator engines. It was originally developed in the 1960s to move Apollo moon rockets, and continued its job to move the space shuttles for 30 years, before being modified and upgraded for its new role moving the SLS.
In total, the Crawler will be moving 21.4 million pounds (including its own weight of 6.6 million lbs) when it rolls out of the VAB with SLS and Orion.
NASA will air the roll out live online and on NASA TV starting at 5pm Eastern on March 17, complete with live commentary from guests including NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. You can also watch live, static camera views of the debut and arrival at the pad starting at 4pm Eastern on March 17 via the Kennedy Newsroom YouTube channel.
Once at the pad, the SLS and Orion will undergo a Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR), where it will conduct tests and checkouts such as loading and de-tanking propellants, and perform a practice launch countdown and then recycle back to T-10 minutes to demonstrate the ability to scrub a launch and de-tank. Teams inside the VAB have also started the first of a two-part test of the flight termination system.
Once the systems are verified at the pad and the WDR is complete, the rocket will roll back into the VAB for final inspections and checkouts, including the second part of the flight termination system test, and then return to the pad a second time for the launch itself (NASA will set a launch date following the WDR).
Follow our LAUNCH TRACKER for live coverage and join us as NASA unveils America’s new moon rocket and spacecraft for the first Artemis mission.