Eleven years in the making, the most powerful rocket built by NASA since the last Apollo program was upright. Framed by the industrial testing platform to which it is attached, the core of the Space Launch System is a sparkling, dream-colored column that is cast into a relief using coils and a wire mesh system. The rocket is taller than the Statue of Liberty, the pedestal and all, and is the foundation of NASA’s astronaut ambitions. The launch vehicle is the centerpiece of the agency’s Artemis program to bring people back to the lunar surface, and then, send them to Mars.
On Thursday, NASA will make a second attempt to demonstrate that the Space Launch System is ready to fly, with the aim of creating a continuous “hot flame” for its engines in time. space eight minutes. If the test goes well, the next stop for the missile will be the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and as early as November, the launch pad. It is expected to lift a capsule called Orion on a path around the moon and back. Its first crew mission was scheduled for 2023. That flight would be the first to take astronauts out of low-Earth orbit since 1972. Indeed, it would take astronauts out of low-range orbit since 1972. astronauts into space further away than any human before.
And not a bold statement about the future of man flying into space, the Space Launch System rocket represents something else: the past and the end. This is the last class of rockets that NASA is capable of building.
However, seeing it launch will actually mean something. While NASA has long wanted to bring astronauts back into deep space, that has not been possible. The agency lacks a vehicle designed, tested and confirmed to be safe for humans to lift more than a few hundred miles from the ground. If this week’s test is successful and the missile flies after that, the US will be able to say it does.
But the course didn’t run smoothly. The Space Launch System was born not on the engineers ‘drafting table, but on the senators’ desks. In 2010, Congress legislated for a vehicle to launch heavy objects into deep space. What? TBD. And where, exactly? No one can say for sure.
Members of Congress had no specific design intentions, but they asked NASA to rummage boxes of old space shuttle parts whenever possible to build this and demand that it launch by year. 2016.
Tasked with building a large rocket, NASA has assembled exploration programs that will use it. First, it’s a planetary rocket. Then there is a Mars rocket. Now, it is an Artemis moon rocket. In any case, Space Launch System would exceed budget by billions of dollars and after 5 years from its mandatory launch date.
A hot fire test in January disappointed NASA engineers in hopes of proving it was worth the wait. However, instead of simulating eight minutes of the stresses and events of an actual launch, the engines shut down after just 67.2 seconds. NASA blamed “deliberately conservative test parameters” for this failure. Since then, engineers have repaired a valve and replaced a faulty wiring harness that signaled “major part failure” during testing.
The failures that have plagued the Space Launch System are in stark contrast to what else has happened to rockets over the past decade.
If you’ve been logged on to the internet for the past five years, you’ve probably seen spectacular rocket launches made by SpaceX. Elon Musk’s private aerospace outfit has launched hundreds of satellites into space, and even a Tesla sports car. Its boosters then return to Earth and elegantly land upright for reuse. On Sunday, one person made the ninth round-trip.
This private space program was nurtured and accelerated by NASA after the shuttles stopped flying in 2011. Last year, SpaceX began sending the agency’s astronauts to the International Space Station. Now, the company has a goal of sending humans to the moon and Mars. But SpaceX’s rockets aren’t ready to carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, and several other companies have expressed interest in this true long-distance travel market.
The Space Launch system was not the first attempt by post-Apollo NASA to build a deep space missile for the astronauts. On July 20, 1989, 20 years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, President George HW Bush committed humanity to be a multi-planet species. He then came up with a timetable: that in 2019, celebrating the 50th anniversary of that “giant leap”, astronauts would greet stars and stripes from Mars.
Obviously, that didn’t happen.
In 2004, George W. Bush made a similar commitment to his father. Much of the technology going into the Space Launch System and Orion capsules can be traced back to that now canceled show, Constellation. In 2010, Barack Obama made his own statement, asking NASA to use rockets to cruise to Mars. The hardware has since been absorbed by Artemis, a NASA program run by the Trump administration that began sending the first man and woman to the moon before reaching the red planet.
Despite the lofty ambitions of so many presidents, the human race is still bogged down in orbit. The ability to reach the moon is not as simple as going a little further. The space station operates about 250 miles above the surface of the Earth. The moon is about 250,000 miles away. Accordingly, after 32 years of erroneous launches and failed programs, the successful launch of the Space Launch System will eventually reopen the old frontiers of human space flight. NASA will once again have the hardware to transport humans to other worlds.
No other US rocket can send an astronaut to the moon in a single launch. Falcon Heavy, a large rocket built by SpaceX that has flown three times, is not certified for human launch. Instead, SpaceX has focused the crew’s deep space ambitions on Starship, a sleek, ambitious spaceship that’s in development and possibly years away from humans. Right now, if NASA wants to bring astronauts back to the moon, the Space Launch System is the only game in town, even if it costs $ 2 billion per launch and cannot be reused. .
SpaceX and Blue Origin, another private rocket company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, are tackling very difficult problems: how to build multi-purpose rockets and gentle crew landing vehicles so they can be reused even with astronauts on board.
In contrast, NASA’s rockets are nothing like anyone’s vision of the future. That’s part of what makes Space Launch System such a useful transition product. It does not have an unusual technical obstacle to leaps and bounds. There is every reason to believe that once these rockets have proven their ability to fly, they will perform well and reliably. Until Starship or some other rocket flies safely and steadily, NASA can continue its interplanetary efforts knowing that in the short term it has a giant active rocket.
There is great value in it. Big rockets won’t be needed forever. It may only take long enough to bring the first woman to the moon. The commercial launch area is probably ready to go from there.
It is very unlikely that NASA will again rely on the rockets they have built. The Space Launch system is the end of the line. If the sole purpose it served was to give the nation the time and confidence to have a private, reusable ship in space, then it would be a success.
Whether the Space Launch System program ends next year or the next decade, unlike the end of space shuttle or Saturn 5, it will not be the end of a chapter, but the end of A book. NASA will stop selling rockets. When the next generation comes to the Kennedy Space Center and sees a huge old Space Launch System booster on display, the tour guide says, “They don’t make them like that anymore,” and that’s it. will be right – literally.
David W. Brown is a spaceship journalist. He is the author of “Mission,” a test of NASA’s long-term effort to build a spaceship to explore Jupiter’s moon Europa.