May 21, 2022

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It's bulky, expensive, and years late - but the SLS rocket has finally arrived

It’s bulky, expensive, and years late – but the SLS rocket has finally arrived

On Friday morning, NASA’s giant Space Launch System reached the launch pad. The rocket isn’t ready to fly yet, and it may not take off from the planet for several more months. But as the fully assembled rocket the size of a skyscraper blasted off on a quiet evening in Florida Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center, no one could deny it’s finally here.

Honestly, it’s hard to know how you feel about this rocket. Sure, one couldn’t help but be in awe of a rocket as tall as a tall American football field. Designing, building and testing such a large and complex machine represented an important engineering feat. But it is impossible to have a rational discussion of the Space Launch System rocket and its payload, the Orion spacecraft, without considering its enormous cost, persistent delays, and looming obsolescence.

One thing seems clear: Although the fully-stacked SLS rocket and crewed Orion capsule set the stage for the unmanned launch of Artemis I later this year, the start-up does not mark the end of the beginning of this launch system. Rather, it is the beginning of the end. These may well be the final moments in the era of NASA’s Apollo that has dominated the space agency for six decades.

The good

The SLS and Orion rocket have been featured in NASA PowerPoint presentations for so long that it’s good to finally see the real thing. The rocket and spacecraft looked gleaming as they blasted off into the sunset after emerging from the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. After about 11 hours, the stack reached Launch Complex 39B, apparently no worse than wear.

Over the next week or so, engineers and technicians will prepare the car for a critical fuel test known as a “wet rehearsal,” in which the rocket will be loaded with cooled propellant and dropped within seconds of the engine igniting. This is a test to be reckoned with, as it will involve a complex interaction between the newly assembled missile, spacecraft, launch tower, ground systems and flight software.

If all goes well, the test should be taken during the first week of April. It will probably take several days, or maybe even longer if technical issues occur. After this test, the missile will return to the Vehicle Assembly Building to be outfitted with fireworks and for other final missions. The missile will likely return to the platform for a launch attempt in early June.

This is a huge, powerful missile that is 100% American-made. If the SLS rocket passes its flight test later this year, it will give NASA and the Western world a powerful heavy vehicle (Europe is a partner in the Orion spacecraft, and dozens of countries have signed up for the space agency’s Artemis Moon program). And at least until SpaceX’s Starship vehicle goes online, the SLS rocket will provide unparalleled heavy lift capability for exploration purposes.

A lot of people have worked hard to get the rocket and spacecraft to this point. This is no small feat in a large bureaucracy like NASA. Congratulations to all.

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