NASA says the first full-fledged Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is less than a week away from its first launch and the start of its first test on the East Coast.
Teams began to withdraw working platforms surrounding the fully stacked missile, slowly revealing the launch vehicle intended for Artemis 1 – a highly anticipated and delayed large-scale unmanned test flight of the SLS missile and Orion spacecraft. Since April 2021, the SLS and Orion have been slowly but surely assembled inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Preparing the rocket for the launch pad required a tedious and complex series of tests designed to ensure that the vehicle was ready for the pressures it would face and the operations it would conduct before and during launch. The launch is expected to begin at around 5 p.m. EDT (22:00 UTC) on Thursday, March 17, and if all goes well, the rocket’s giant crawler — effectively a mobile launcher — should take about 12 hours. To carry it for firing complex 39B (LC-39B or Pad 39B). The first hour of launch will take off the rocket and mobile launch tower from the VAB, followed by an 11-hour flight to the platform.
NASA says the SLS will spend about one month in Pad 39B, during which time it will undergo expensive tests needed to ensure it is ready for launch. After two weeks on the pillow, SLS tanks will be filled with liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid oxygen (LOx) fuel and run through a simulated countdown in a process known as wet clothes rehearsal (WDR). Artemis-1 mission representatives note that “the countdown will end in about [T-minus 9 seconds]Moments before the four RS-25 engines ignite [before] Actual launch.” By allowing the countdown timer to run very low, test teams could check all interfaces (except for the rocket’s RS-25 engines) that had to be carefully coordinated during launch.
Once the wet garment is complete, the SLS will be returned back to the VAB for final preparations for launch, including identification and repair of any issues found during wet wear, the final work of the Orion spacecraft, and flight software updates. After the SLS returns to VAB, NASA expects the final work to take one month to complete. However, NASA officials acknowledge that there is still a lot of work to do for the SLS before launch, and that every aspect of the space agency’s work on the rocket over the past two and a half years has been subject to long delays.
No official launch date has been chosen by NASA, as delays continue to make setting a specific date impractical. Tom Whitmer, NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, noted that a launch in April was no longer possible. “We are still assessing the tail end of the May window,” he said, which runs from May 7 to 21. to June 16 and 29 to July 12, with a “break” from July 2 to 4, when no launch is possible.
The Artemis-1 mission will be the first integrated unmanned flight test of NASA’s Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket. The SLS rocket is designed for missions outside of low Earth orbit carrying a crew or payload to the moon and beyond. Upon takeoff, it will weigh about six million pounds (~2,700 tons) and produce about 8.8 million pounds (~4,000 tons) of thrust.
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