No, seriously, NASA’s Space Launch System is ready to fly

NASA's Space Launch System rocket, reflected in the turntable of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, rolls out for a fourth attempt during a wet dress rehearsal on June 6, 2022.
enlarge / NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, reflected in the turntable of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, rolls out for a fourth attempt during a wet dress rehearsal on June 6, 2022.

Trevor Mahlmann

It really happens. NASA is finally ready to launch its massive Space Launch System rocket, and barring catastrophes, the Orion spacecraft is going to fly to the moon and back.

The space agency’s final preparations for this Artemis I mission are going so well that NASA now plans to roll the rocket to Launch Pad 39B on Tuesday, Aug. 16 at 9 p.m. ET (01:00 UTC). Wednesday). This is two days ahead of the previously announced rollout schedule.

This earlier date for the launch of the missile follows the completion of a test of the flight termination system over the weekend. This was the last major test of the launch system and spacecraft prior to deployment and marks the completion of all major pre-launch activities. NASA continues to target three dates to attempt the Artemis I launch: August 29, September 2, and September 5.

The flight termination system is an isolated part of the missile. In the event of a problem during takeoff, ground controllers can send a signal to the flight termination system to destroy the missile before it drifts off course and threatens a populated area.

Because this shutdown system is separate from the missile, it has an independent power supply that is only rated for about three weeks. This limit is set by the US Space Force, which operates the Eastern Range, including Kennedy Space Center. The problem for NASA is that one of the proposed launch dates, September 5, fell outside this prescribed limit.

However, NASA said it has received an extension of the Space Launch Delta 45 for the validation of the flight termination system from 20 to 25 days before it is due for retesting. The waiver is valid during the Artemis I launch attempts, NASA said. However, if the mission fails to launch on any of these three attempts due to weather, technical problem, or other scrub reasons, the missile must be rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for flight termination system work.

Each of the three upcoming launch options would enable a “long-class” mission for the Orion spacecraft, which will be detached and orbit the moon for several weeks before returning to Earth and crashing into the Pacific Ocean. The missions would range in length from 39 to 42 days.

The Artemis I mission is an important step forward for NASA and its ambitions for a human exploration program in deep space. The rocket’s next launch will carry four astronauts around the moon, and the third launch is planned to allow for a human landing there, possibly in the mid-2020s.

The SLS missile program has often been criticized for its extensive delays and price tag of more than $20 billion. But with a successful launch within a few weeks, the space agency will be able to quell at least one of these criticisms by proving that the massive rocket works as intended.

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