NASA plans to fly the Space Launch System, its next-generation rocket, for the first flight in February 2022. This is an important test flight on NASA's mission to return people to the Moon. There are still many tests to be completed before the long-delayed vehicle can take flight.
The new target date was confirmed by engineers on August 8. This confirmation comes just a day after the Space Launch System (or SLS) was fully assembled inside NASA's huge hangar at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. The SLS stands at 322 feet tall and is higher than the Statue of Liberty. NASA's Orion crew capsule is a new spacecraft designed to transport people into deep space. It can be found at the top of the stack. The SLS will fly for the first time next January without any passengers. A test mission will send an Orion capsule empty on a four to six week trip around the Moon.
There are still many tests to be completed before the long-delayed vehicle can take flight.
The SLS's debut flight is called Artemis I. It was the first major flight under NASAs Artemis program. If the flight is successful then the next mission of Orions and SLS will be Artemis II. This mission will take NASA astronauts around the Moon in a similar orbit. The program will end with the landing of the first woman and first person of color on Moon's surface. Vice President Mike Pence challenged NASA during the Trump administration to make this landing possible as soon as 2024.
This timeline was questioned due to the complex mission and many delays. NASA originally envisioned the SLS first flying in 2017 but it has been repeatedly delayed due to poor management and cost overruns. NASA will also need a lunar lander in order to transport people to the Moon's surface. This is something that the SLS and Orion cannot do. SpaceX was awarded a contract by NASA to build its Starship vehicle to transport people to the Moon's surface. The vehicle is still in development and there are lawsuits from Blue Origin, a competitor, that have complicated the process. There is also the issue of creating new spacesuits which could delay the timeline.
NASA has not abandoned the 2024 target date despite all this, even though Joe Biden was elected president. In June, NASA administrator Bill Nelson stated that although it is a difficult schedule, the target date of 2024 is achievable. Nelson recently admitted that there is a lot of work to do and many obstacles to overcome.
NASA's main focus is on Artemis I. NASA will roll out the fully-stacked SLS to the launchpad in late 2012 if all goes according to plan. The mission team will perform a "wet dress rehearsal" in which they fill the rocket with the same propellants that it will use for flight, but not ignite the engines. NASA will then return the rocket to its hangar to perform additional checks, before it is again transported to the launchpad for the flight.
I can't tell you how proud I am of the team that got me to where I am today, despite the many challenges we faced with COVID, major storms, most recently Hurricane Ida, and the impacts it had on our testing facilities," John Honeycutt (the SLS program manager at NASAs Marshall Space Flight Center), said today during a press conference.
Artemis I currently has three launch windows. One in February, one March and one April. Each window is approximately 15 days long and is determined by the Earth's axis movement and the Moon's rotation around the planet. The first window opened on February 12th. Artemis I's stay in space will depend on the time of launch. It can be a four-week or six-week mission depending on the window.
Artemis II will be launched in 2023, with completion of Artemis I. People will be aboard the craft for that flight. This means that it will require additional equipment, including a life support system. NASA could not confirm whether delays in SLS have delayed Artemis II. However, they did say that an update was on the horizon.
I believe the agency continues to look into that; we are evaluating the status for that mission," Tom Whitmeyer (Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development at NASA) said today during a press conference.