NASA’s Space-Launch System (SLS), which was supposed to launch the first Artemis mission in November, won’t take off until next year, according to a NASA source.
The SLS, the new super-heavy launcher developed by NASA, is the one that will be responsible for sending the next crews to the Moon, and why not later to Mars. Its first flight was normally scheduled for next November, as part of the Artemis I mission, the objective of which will be to send an unmanned Orion capsule around the Moon.
Publicly, NASA is still clinging to this deadline. Unofficially, it will likely be postponed to next summer, according to Ars Technica, citing a NASA source.
Still many tests
A few weeks ago, technicians and engineers had finished stacking the SLS rocket, also integrating the side boosters into the structure. A charge was then placed on top of the rocket to simulate the presence of the Orion spacecraft. At present, NASA and its subcontractors are working on launcher vibration tests (modal tests). These aim to better understand the difference between the natural vibrations generated by the rocket itself and those caused by external forces. The data collected will be entered into the flight software.
These tests, which were originally scheduled to end in July, are still underway in the assembly building at Kennedy Space Center (Florida), according to Kathryn Hambleton, the agency’s public relations. In other words, NASA will soon be two months behind the initial targets, and more tests are planned.
Once these vibration tests are completed, the mass simulator will be disheveled from the rocket to be replaced by the real Orion ship. The entire structure will then be transported to the Cape Canaveral launch pad for a “wet dress rehearsal”. During this test, liquid hydrogen and oxygen will be loaded into the rocket and part of the actual countdown will be simulated. However, the vehicle’s engines will not be triggered. This test will likely take place in November or December.
The first stage (Core stage) of the SLS before assembly. Credit: Tyler Martin / NASA Marshall
Not until spring
Then the vehicle will be brought back to the assembly building for final checks. Assuming all goes according to plan, the SLS rocket could now be launched early next spring. On the other hand, if the wet dress rehearsal tests identify any new issues, the launch will likely be postponed until next summer. A schedule update will be offered after modal testing and stacking Orion on top of the rocket.
That the Artemis I mission could not be launched in 2021 was expected. We should therefore expect that the rest of the calendar will also be postponed. The Artemis II mission, which was to send a first crew around the Moon from the Apollo missions, will therefore not take place in 2022, but probably in 2023/2024. The Artemis III mission, which will see humans once again set foot on our satellite, will then be scheduled, but not before 2025.