Artemis I Preparations Proceeding One Step at a Time

Artemis I Preparations Proceeding One Step at a Time

NASA is getting ever closer to the long-delayed and much-anticipated launch of Artemis I, an uncrewed test flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft. SLS and Orion are stacked together at Kennedy Space Center waiting to be rolled out to the launch pad for a dress rehearsal, but the agency said today it will wait another month as it takes preparations step-by-step.

The 365-foot tall Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft stacked together at the Vehicle Assembly Building, Kennedy Space Center, FL. The SLS core stage is yellow. The two Solid Rocket Boosters, one on each side of the core, are white. The white Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage is on top of the core, and the white Orion spacecraft with its Launch Abort System on top of that. Credit: NASA

NASA had been aiming for February 15 for the roll-out, but the target now is mid-March. Tom Whitmeyer, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, was not willing to set a firm date even for roll-out to the pad, much less the “wet dress rehearsal” for a practice countdown while the rocket is fully fueled. A date for the launch itself will not be determined until after that rehearsal.

This launch, Artemis I, will be the first to travel out beyond the Moon and return to Earth since the last Apollo lunar landing in 1972. It can take place during two-week periods of time each month. If the “wet dress” takes place in March and all goes well, the next opportunities are April 8-23 or May 7-21.

It is difficult to overestimate how much is riding on this launch. Not only is it years late and billions over budget, all at taypayers’ expense, but during the decade of its development private companies have moved out on developing their own big rockets, like SpaceX’s Super Heavy/Starship system. That hasn’t flown yet either, but the company hopes to get regulatory approval and be technically ready for a test launch soon.

Advocates of the commercial systems consider SLS a throwback to the past, while SLS supporters insist the government needs to have its own space systems to fulfill national interests and ensure U.S. leadership in space. Companies can always change their minds and exit a business for a variety of reasons.

At the moment NASA is trying to take advantage of both models, with future SLS/Orion launches taking astronauts to lunar orbit and commercial systems like Starship getting them down to and back from the surface. NASA already has hired SpaceX for the first of those landing missions, Artemis III, notionally planned for 2025.

But it will be SLS/Orion to get NASA crews as far as the Moon and hopefully someday to Mars. Getting this launch right is more important than when it goes.

Whitmeyer quoted Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Chair Patricia Sanders as saying at a meeting last week that “if you miss your launch date and have a successful launch, nobody’s going to remember you missed your launch date. But if you hold your launch date and have an unsuccessful launch, nobody’s ever going to forget it.”

Illustration credit: NASA. Boeing is the SLS prime contractor and provides the core stage, powered by four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines left over from the space shuttle program. Boeing also provides the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage. The Solid Rocket Boosters, which trace their heritage to the space shuttle program, are from Northrop Grumman. Orion’s prime contractor is Lockheed Martin. Orion’s Service Module, built by Airbus Defence and Space, was provided by the European Space Agency as part of a barter agreement with NASA.

Whitmeyer told reporters today there is no single item that led to the slip of roll-out from February to March. Instead, they basically are going through a punch list to make certain everything is ready. Personnel are working three shifts a day and he wants them to “really make sure we take this a step at a time and make sure we’re doing the right work.”

Once it is on the launch pad, Mike Bolger, Exploration Ground Systems Manager at Kennedy Space Center, said it will take about two weeks to get ready for the dress rehearsal. How long it will be between then and launch depends on how the test goes

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