How NASA's Comically Big Moon Rocket Is Coming Along

Jennifer Leman
Photo credit: NASA

From Popular Mechanics

  • In a committee meeting of NASA's Advisory Council, officials said they would announce the date for the long-awaited Artemis 1 mission next week.
  • A full-duration firing of SLS's core stage may take place as soon as Thanksgiving.
  • NASA recently purchased 18 additional RS-25 rockets from aerospace company Aerojet Rocketdyne at a cost of $1.79 billion.

NASA just put in a $1.79 billion order for 18 additional RS-25 rocket engines for its Space Launch System rocket, which will shuttle astronauts back to the moon ... eventually. California-based aerospace company Aerojet Rocketdyne, which won the contract, has already provided six engines for upcoming missions.

Along with the Human Landing System and the Orion capsule, the SLS rocket is a key component of NASA's Artemis mission to the moon. The four-engine rocket generates about 2 million pounds of thrust. Its core stage can hold more than 700,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen propellant. NASA has recycled 16 RS-25 shuttle engines for the first four SLS missions, according to a press statement.

SLS was initially supposed to have its first test launch in 2017, but costs have since ballooned to almost $20 billion. Despite rampant criticism that the rocket has cost too much money and taken too long to develop, NASA has pushed forward.

During a NASA Advisory Council committee meeting this week, acting deputy associate administrator Tom Whitmeyer said the agency plans to announce the dates for the long-awaited Artemis 1 mission, the first time the rocket will be put to the test and launched into orbit. The mission is expected to occur—pending any delays—late next year, Ars Technica reports. (We're not holding our breath.)

But before the rocket can get off the ground, NASA has to complete what's called a Green Run. These tests evaluate all of the 212-foot-long core stage's software and hardware including two propellant tanks, flight computers and software, 50 avionics units, navigation and control systems, and propulsion systems made up of over 18 miles of cables, according to NASA.

During this week's meeting, agency officials also said the next critical test called the full-duration firing—conducted at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi—will likely be held around Thanksgiving. A successful Green Run will set the stage for NASA to move forward with plans for the Artemis 1 mission.

Photo credit: NASA

SLS will hoist the Orion capsule into orbit. Orion will then leave Earth's orbit and travel around the moon before returning to Earth. Over the course of the mission, which could last anywhere from 26 to 42 days, the spacecraft will travel 1.3 million miles and deploy 13 cubesats. Artemis 1 will lay the foundation for the following Artemis missions, including our return to the moon.

Work on the SLS paused in recent months due the spread of the coronavirus, but NASA will resume testing in the coming weeks, NASA said in a press release.

"Though Stennis remains in Stage 4 of NASA’s COVID-19 Response Framework, we assessed state and local conditions and worked with agency leadership to develop a plan to safely and methodically increase critical on-site work toward the launch of the next great era of space exploration," Stennis Center Director Rick Gilbrech said.

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