Engineers at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans have now joined together four fifths of the Space Launch System's (SLS) core stage. The upcoming super heavy rocket is slated to make its maiden flight in 2020, and will provide the lifting capabilities for America's long-awaited return to the Moon as part of the newly-named Artemis program.
On March 26th, the Trump administration set NASA the ambitious goal of landing astronauts on the Moon's South Pole by the year 2024, and to have established a sustained presence on and around Earth's satellite by 2028. Before a crewed mission to the surface of the Moon can become a reality, complex hardware must be designed, assembled and tested.
The challenges faced today are similar to those that were overcome by engineers and scientists during the Apollo era in the 1960s and 70s. However, strides made during that program were achieved against the backdrop of a technological race with the Soviet Union, which prompted the US government to give NASA a massive budget that dwarfs the agency's present-day resources.
Whether or not NASA will succeed in reaching its 2024 target of putting the first woman and the next man on the Moon will depend heavily on the success of the SLS's maiden flight. Artemis-1 (once EM-1) will see the rocket launch an uncrewed Orion capsule on a journey that will last 25 days, and take it a mere 62 miles (100 km) from the surface of the Moon.
The 2020 mission will be the second outing for the Orion spacecraft, and will test the capability of the capsule and a European-made service module to support and protect a crew through launch, transit, flight in lunar orbit, and eventually, a high-speed descent through Earth's dense atmosphere.
If Artemis-1 proves to be a success, it will be followed by a crewed mission that will take astronauts on a ride around the far side of the Moon for the first time in over 50 years.
Engineers have now finished two of the three tasks required to join the liquid hydrogen fuel tank to the upper part of the core stage of the SLS that will launch Artemis-1. The upper section is comprised of the forward skirt, which contains guidance computers, a liquid oxygen propellant tank, and the intertank which, alongside holding avionics of its own, acts as a connecting point between the core stage and the twin boosters.
In its current configuration it is four fifths complete and roughly 190 ft (58 m) long. Once mated with the engine section, it will be an impressive 212 ft (65 m) in length.
In April, the last of the RS-25 engines that will power the core stage of the SLS passed inspection, clearing the shuttle-era engines for flight. The four core stage RS-25s, working in conjunction with two 177 ft (54 m)-tall side-strapped solid fuel boosters will provide 8.8 million pounds of thrust at launch, compared to the 7.6 million pounds of thrust once offered by the Saturn-V rocket.
Whilst some elements of the launch vehicle have already arrived safely at the Kennedy Space Center where the rocket is being assembled – and will eventually be launched – others have yet to be delivered, including all 10 segments of the twin SLS thrusters.
NASA and Boeing are now working to finish the engine section of the Artemis-1 SLS, with the goal of completing core stage assembly by the end of the year.
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