NASA has reached an important milestone, as the 188,000-pound core stage of its latest rocket is now standing vertically inside an assembly building in Florida.
With sights firmly on a crewed Moon landing, NASA is gearing up for Artemis I. For this upcoming three-week mission, an Orion spacecraft will travel 280,000 miles (450,000 km) to the Moon and back, in what will be a critically important test of the agency’s upcoming megarocket: the Space Launch System, or SLS.
With the SLS Green Run tests all wrapped up, NASA can finally get into the important business of preparing the rocket for this historic launch, which is currently scheduled for November 2021. Assembly of the 322-foot-tall (98-meter) rocket is currently taking place in Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
A dramatic photo taken on Saturday, June 12 shows the gigantic core stage being lowered onto the mobile launcher, which will eventually transport the rocket to Launch Pad 39B. Once the stacking is complete, the core stage will sit nestled between the twin solid rocket boosters. Teams with NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems, along with private contractor Jacobs, have been doing the heavy lifting, so to speak.
“Serving as the backbone of the rocket, the core stage supports the weight of the payload, upper stage, and crew vehicle, as well as carrying the thrust of its four engines and two five-segment solid rocket boosters,” noted NASA in its release. The rocket’s four RS-25 engines will provide more than 2 million pounds of thrust during launch. Add the power provided by the two side boosters, and the total lift capacity then reaches 8.8 million pounds of thrust.
A time-lapse video released yesterday shows the stacking process, as the core stage, which arrived at the facility on April 27, was raised from a horizontal to vertical position.
Once assembly is complete and the rocket is brought to Pad 39B, NASA will then conduct practice countdowns and fueling tests. The mobile launcher will then return SLS to the assembly building for “final closeouts, inspections, and ordnance connections,” and then roll it back to the pad about six days before launch, as SpaceFlightNow reports.
Should Artemis I go as planned, we can then look forward to Artemis II (probably in 2023), in which a crewed Orion spacecraft will zip around the Moon—no landing just yet—and return to Earth. The Artemis III mission, currently scheduled for 2024, will attempt to land two American astronauts, a man and a woman, on the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo missions.
These dates are subject to change, however, as the Biden administration reconsiders the current timeline. No sense in rushing this when lives will be on the line.