NASA wants to launch the SLS rocket in just 2 months

The Space Launch System rocket will be back in the Vehicle Assembly Building this week.
Enlarge / The Space Launch System rocket will be back in the Vehicle Assembly Building this week.

Trevor Mahlman

The US Space Agency has spent a long, long time designing, developing, building and testing the Space Launch System rocket. When NASA created the rocket program in 2010, US lawmakers said the SLS booster should be ready for launch in 2016.

Of course, this starting goal and many others have come and gone. But now, after more than a decade and more than $20 billion in funding, NASA and its litany of contractors are on the verge of declaring the 111-meter-tall rocket ready for its first launch.

On June 20, NASA successfully counted the rocket down to T-29 seconds during a prelaunch refueling test. Although they did not achieve T-9 seconds, as was the original goal, the agency’s engineers collected enough data to provide the information needed for a launch.

During two press briefings last week, NASA officials declined to set a launch target for the mission. However, in an interview with Ars on Tuesday, NASA Chief Exploration Official Jim Free said the agency is working on an Aug. 23 to Sept. 6 launch window.

“We have our sights set on him,” said Free. “We would be fools not to target this now. We made incredible progress last week.”

Next, the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft taxi back to the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center for final launch preparations, including arming the flight termination system. A team of technicians and engineers will also replace a seal on a “quick coupler” that was observed to leak hydrogen during fueling.

That rollback could begin as early as Thursday, Free said, and workers have made plans to process the vehicle during a relatively quick turnaround time. “This group knows exactly what to do when we come back,” he said. “I don’t think we’re making any effort to get there. We’ll probably push each other a bit, but we won’t do anything stupid.” On this timeline, the SLS rocket could roll back to the launch pad in less than two months.

This Artemis I mission will not carry people on board but will serve as a test flight for the massive rocket, the largest rocket built by NASA since Saturn V, which the agency used to fly the Apollo program. A second mission, Artemis II, will fly a crew of four astronauts around the moon. It probably won’t happen before 2025. The first human landing on the moon, Artemis III, will likely occur a year or two after the successful completion of Artemis II.