NASA’s new moon rocket arrived at the launch pad Wednesday in advance of its debut flight in less than two weeks.
The 98-metre (322-foot) rocket emerged from its mammoth hangar late Tuesday night, drawing crowds of Kennedy Space Center workers. Moving at less than 1.6kph (1mph), it took nearly 10 hours for the massive rocket to make the four-mile trip to the pad, pulling up at sunrise Wednesday.
Sitting atop the Boeing-made rocket is NASA’s Orion astronaut capsule, built by Lockheed Martin Corp LMT.N. It is designed to separate from the rocket in space, ferry humans towards the moon and rendezvous with a separate spacecraft that will take astronauts to the lunar surface.
NASA is aiming for an August 29 liftoff for the lunar test flight. No one will be inside the crew capsule, just three mannequins — test dummies filled with sensors to measure radiation and vibration.
The capsule will fly around the moon in a distant orbit for a couple of weeks, before heading back for a splashdown in the Pacific. The entire flight should last six weeks.
The flight is the first moonshot in NASA’s Artemis programme. The space agency is aiming for a lunar-orbiting flight with astronauts in two years and a lunar landing by a human crew as early as 2025. That would be much later than NASA anticipated when it established the programme more than a decade ago, as the space shuttle fleet retired. The years of delays have added billions of dollars to the cost.
NASA’s new SLS moon rocket, short for Space Launch System, is 12 metres (41 feet) shorter than the Saturn V rockets used during the Apollo moon programme a half-century ago. But it’s more powerful, using a core stage and twin strap-on boosters, similar to the ones used for the space shuttles.
“When you look at the rocket, it almost looks retro. It looks like we’re looking back toward the Saturn V,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said this month. “But it’s a totally different, new, highly sophisticated, more sophisticated rocket and spacecraft.”
Twenty-four astronauts, all white men, flew to the moon during Apollo, with 12 of them landing on it from 1969 through 1972. The space agency wants a more diverse team and more sustained effort under Artemis, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister.
NASA has said its Artemis programme will land the first woman and the first person of colour on the moon.
“I want to underscore that this is a test flight,” Nelson said of the launch scheduled for August 29. “It’s just the beginning.”
This was the rocket’s third trip to the pad. A countdown test in April was marred by fuel leaks and other equipment trouble, forcing NASA to return the rocket to the hangar for repairs. The dress rehearsal was repeated at the pad in June, with improved results.
If bad launch weather or a minor technical issue triggers a delay on August 29, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has backup launch dates on September 2 and September 5.