The US space agency spent a lot of time designing, developing, building and testing the Space Launch System rocket. When NASA created the rocket program in 2010, US lawmakers said the SLS booster should be ready for launch in 2016.
Of course, that launch target and many others have passed. But now, after more than a decade and more than $20 billion in funding, NASA and its litany of contractors are about to declare the 111-meter-tall rocket ready for its first launch.
On June 20, NASA successfully clocked the rocket to T-29 seconds during a pre-launch refueling test. Although they did not reach T-9 seconds, as was the original goal, agency engineers collected enough data to satisfy the information required to proceed with a launch.
At two press conferences last week, NASA officials declined to set a launch target for the mission. However, in a Tuesday interview with Ars, NASA’s top exploration official Jim Free said the agency was working toward an August 23-September 6 launch window.
“That’s the one we’re targeting,” Free said. “We’d be fools not to target that now. We’ve made incredible progress in the last week.”
The next step is to return the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft to the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center for final launch preparations, including arming the flight termination system. A team of technicians and engineers will also replace a seal on a “quick disconnect” where a hydrogen leak was noted during fuel loading.
That rollback could begin as early as Thursday, Free said, and workers plan to process the vehicle relatively quickly. “This group knows exactly what to do when we come back,” he said. “I don’t think we’re stretching to get there. We’re probably pushing ourselves a bit, but we’re not going to do anything stupid.” On this timeline, the SLS rocket could return to the launch pad in less than two months.
This Artemis I mission will not carry any humans on board but will instead serve as a test flight for the massive rocket, the largest built by NASA since the Saturn V used by the agency to pilot the Apollo program. A second mission, Artemis II, will fly a crew of four astronauts around the Moon. That probably won’t happen until 2025. The first human Moon landing, Artemis III, will likely take place a year or two after the successful conclusion of Artemis II.