NASA’s SLS moon rocket hits launch pad for the first time

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NASA’s giant new moon rocket is finally on the launch pad, though it’s yet to be determined when it might finally leave Earth.

For the first time on Thursday night, a fully stacked Space Launch System rocket and accompanying launch tower emerged from the Vehicle Assembly Building — essentially a massive rocket garage — at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The rocket, with an Orion capsule on top where astronauts will one day sit, was slowly carried atop a giant robot to the launch site more than four miles away.

“The deployment of the VAB is truly an iconic moment for this vehicle,” Tom Whitmeyer, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA Headquarters, said at a press conference Monday. “To be here for a new generation of an exploration-class super heavy vehicle, Thursday will be a day to remember.”

The trip took over 10 hours. The rocket reached its destination at 4:15 a.m. Friday, NASA said.

Thursday and Friday’s scene was reminiscent of NASA’s Apollo era half a century ago when Saturn 5 rockets used for the moon landings made similar trips to the launch pad. The crawler used Thursday was the same one that carried the Saturn 5s, though refurbished and modernized for Artemis, NASA’s new program to one day return astronauts to the lunar surface.

The rocket will sit for the next two weeks while engineers check various systems on the rocket and the launch pad, known as Launch Complex 39B. If all goes well, testing will culminate in a countdown in early April with hundreds of thousands of gallons of cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen flowing into the propellant tanks.

But the engines won’t fire and the rocket won’t leave the ground. It will be what NASA calls a “wetsuit rehearsal” — wet because it includes refilling liquid propellants — and will be the last big rehearsal before a launch can take place. The countdown will stop with approximately 10 seconds remaining, without the motors turning on.

After the wet dress rehearsal, the rocket will make the return trip to the Vehicle Assembly Building.

The next time the rocket emerges will be for launch. NASA officials say they want to see how the rehearsal goes before deciding when it might take place – possibly as early as this summer.

The first mission will not have astronauts on board. The uncrewed test flight, known as Artemis 1, will first circle the Earth before its second-stage engine pushes it out of low Earth orbit toward the moon. The Orion capsule will then separate from the second stage and, a few days later, will enter orbit around the Moon.

The mission, which will last about three weeks, will end with the grounding of Orion in the Pacific Ocean.

Both the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule are years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

In 2024, NASA scheduled Artemis 2, a mission to send astronauts flying around the moon and back for the first time since 1972. Then another crew of astronauts is to land on the moon with Artemis 3, a mission the NASA has scheduled for 2025. , although this schedule could again be delayed.

The moon landing mission will require the use of a separate landing craft, the giant Starship rocket built by SpaceX. Starship could also make its first test flight in space this year.

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