NASA’s next-generation moon rocket was set to begin a slow-motion voyage from an assembly plant to its launch pad in Florida on Thursday, ahead of a last series of testing that will determine how soon the spacecraft can fly in the coming weeks.
The public’s first look of a space vehicle more than a decade in the making, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with its Orion crew capsule sitting on top, marks a critical milestone in US plans for resumed lunar exploration after years of disappointments.
Weather permitting, the 5.75-million-ton, 32-story-tall SLS-Orion spacecraft was set to be moved out of its Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA‘s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT).
The megarocket, which stands taller than the Statue of Liberty, will be towed to Launch Pad 39B by a massive crawler-transporter over a 4-mile (6.5-kilometer) journey that will take roughly 11 hours. NASA Television and the space agency’s website will broadcast the event live.
On Wednesday, forecasters predicted that weather along Florida’s Atlantic coast would be favourable.
The flight, which will pave the way for NASA‘s uncrewed Artemis I mission to the moon and back, was delayed last month due to a series of technical issues that the space agency said were overcome as technicians prepared the rocket for the launch pad.
“We are in very good position and ready to roll on Thursday,” Artemis launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson said earlier this week when briefing media on NASA’s progress.
The SLS-Orion spacecraft will be prepped for a vital pre-flight test known as a “wet dress rehearsal,” which will begin on April 3 and last approximately two days.
In a top-to-bottom review of the entire system, engineers aim to fully load the SLS core fuel tanks with super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant and conduct a simulated launch countdown, stopping seconds before the rocket’s four R-25 engines would ignite.
The conclusion will determine when NASA will launch the rocket and capsule combo for the first time, dubbed Artemis I. The SLS-Orion is the cornerstone of NASA’s Artemis programme, which aims to return astronauts to the moon and build a long-term lunar colony as a prelude to human exploration of Mars.
From 1969 to 1972, the United States’ Apollo programme delivered six manned trips to the moon, the only crewed spaceflights to reach the lunar surface. Artemis, named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, aspires to be the first woman and person of colour to walk on the moon, among other things.
However, NASA must first complete a successful Artemis I mission, which involves an uncrewed travel 40,000 miles (64,374 kilometres) beyond the moon and back. NASA has stated that it is looking into possible launch dates in April and May, although the timeframe may be pushed back depending on the outcomes of the dress rehearsal.
The ship will be rolled back to the assembly building eight or nine days after those tests are done and the propellant from the rocket is emptied, to await the setting of a launch date.
In November, NASA reported that the first human lunar landing of Artemis might happen as early as 2025, following a crewed Artemis journey around the moon and back at an indeterminate date.
Both of those missions, as well as future ones, will be launched into space by the SLS, which is the world’s largest and most powerful launch vehicle, surpassing NASA’s Saturn V from the Apollo period. It is also the first exploration-class rocket created by NASA for human spaceflight since Saturn V.