SLS Core Stage Now at KSC

SLS Core Stage Now at KSC

The first launch of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is one step closer now that the SLS core stage has arrived at Kennedy Space Center, FL. All the other elements for the first launch, Artemis-I, are already there. The pieces will be integrated and tested before the entire stack is moved out to the launch pad for an uncrewed test flight around the Moon in coming months.

Boeing is the SLS prime contractor and built the core stage as well as an upper stage.  Aerojet Rocketdyne is providing the four RS-25 engines, which were originally used in the space shuttle program. Northrop Grumman supplies the two Solid Rocket Boosters.  Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft, which has a Service Module contributed by the European Space Agency.

Artist’s illustration of the Space Launch System. The core stage is orange. The two Solid Rocket boosters on each side are white. The upper stage and Orion spacecraft on top also are white. Credit: NASA

The overall program is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.  The core stage was built at the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, LA and tested at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, MS.

Delivery of the core stage to Kennedy was delayed by several months because of shutdowns at Stennis due to COVID and five hurricanes last summer. Then the last of eight “Green Run” tests at Stennis had to be repeated.

Finally, on Tuesday, the core stage arrived at Kennedy by barge after the 900 mile trip from Stennis.

The core stage is 212 feet long with a diameter of 27.6 feet. Today it was moved from the barge into the towering Vehicle Assembly Building where it will be stacked with the rest of the vehicle.

The SLS core stage (orange) for the Artemis-I mission just before entering the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, April 29, 2021. Credit: NASA


The SLS core stage with its four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines (with red covers) on its way to the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, April 29, 2021. Credit: NASA


SLS core stage inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, April 29, 2021. Credit: NASA

The Artemis-I launch date has not been set.

The first flight of SLS has been delayed again and again. In 2014, NASA committed to the first launch in November 2018. That slipped to December 2019-June 2020, then to mid-late 2021.

More recently, NASA had been saying November 2021 and Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk insists there is still a chance of liftoff this year. He concedes, however, there is a lot of work to do. He noted earlier this week that this is a “first time flow” that “will undoubtedly encounter challenges” and “we don’t have a lot of schedule reserve.”  But still, “we’ve got a shot” at launching by the end of the calendar year.

SLS is a Saturn V-class rocket that NASA will use to send astronauts back to the Moon and perhaps someday to Mars.  Critics argue the private sector now is building rockets that will be able to do the job at less cost and continue to hope the program will be cancelled. Short of a catastrophic accident, that seems highly unlikely at this point.

Not only does SLS have strong support from powerful members of Congress from states and districts that rely on the program for jobs, but one of the people who created it was just confirmed as the new NASA Administrator.

Bill Nelson, then a Senator from Florida, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) brokered a compromise in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act directing NASA to build SLS and Orion after President Obama terminated the Bush Administration’s Constellation program and its big Ares V rocket. In return, Congress allowed Obama to move forward with his proposal to enter into Public-Private Partnerships to build new crew transportation systems for the International Space Station — the commercial crew program.

Nelson was confirmed by the Senate as NASA Administrator today.  Getting Artemis-I off the ground will certainly be one of his priorities along with developing a realistic plan for future flights in the Artemis program.

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