Artemis I Still On Track for Major Test in March

Artemis I Still On Track for Major Test in March

A test countdown for the first launch of NASA’s Artemis I system is still on track for next month. NASA officials said today the vehicle will roll out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center on March 17 for a full-up test prior to an uncrewed flight around the Moon. The actual Artemis I launch date is dependent on how well the test goes, but the long-awaited launch of the Saturn V-class rocket is getting closer.

Illustration of the Space Launch System with an Orion spacecraft on top. The orange core has two white Solid Rocket Boosters on each side, a white Interim Cyrogenic Propulsion Stage and a white Orion spacecraft on top. Credit: NASA

The Space Launch System, or SLS, and its Orion spacecraft are billions over budget and years behind schedule, but that does not diminsh the growing excitement of seeing “the stack” lift off from KSC’s Launch Complex 39-B.

SLS/Orion is derived from and looks similar to the space shuttle, but without the winged orbiter on the side. Instead, the crew will be atop the vehicle in the Orion spacecraft, similar to how NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launched.

But the shuttle’s External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters are the basis for SLS. Boeing is the prime contractor and builds the core stage as well as the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage. The core stage is powered by four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines left over from the shuttle program. Northrop Grumman builds the two Solid Rocket Boosters, similar to those used for the shuttle but with five segments instead of four.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the Orion crew capsule, which has a Service Module provided through a barter agreement with the European Space Agency.

NASA officials gave an update today on the test, called a Wet Dress Rehearsal, or WDR, because the rocket will be fueled or “wet” during the test. They will roll the vehicle out to the launch pad and conduct several practice countdowns, drain the fuel, and roll back to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for further preparations before the first launch.

The SLS/Orion “stack” inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: NASA

From the time they begin roll-out until the giant stack gets to the launch pad is about 12 hours.

Mike Bolger, Exploration Ground Systems Program Manager, said they plan to begin on March 17 at 6:00 pm ET.

SLS with the Orion spacecraft and the Launch Abort System is 322 feet tall. Its scale is difficult to discern in NASA’s photos because it is enclosed in scaffolding inside the VAB, so the moment it rolls out of the building on its Mobile Launcher is expected to be quite a sight.

It will take an hour just to exit the VAB, then another 11 to make the four-mile trip at a top speed of 0.82 miles per hour.

The SLS/Orion stack will be on the launch pad for about a month for the WDR and subsequent data analysis. Then it goes back to the VAB for additional preparations. Tom Whitmeyer, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, said the earliest it could launch is at the end of the May 7-21 launch window, but conveyed that is not likely considering the amount of work that needs to be done

The June 6-16 or June 29-July 12 launch windows seem a better bet if the WDR goes well.

Today’s briefing took place just after President Biden’s press conference announcing sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Asked if SLS/Orion has any Russian or Ukrainian components, the answer was no.

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