© Reuters. NASA’s next-generation lunar rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with its Orion crew pod atop, is on display at the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) before it’s scheduled to make a slow-motion journey to its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, F
By Steve Nesius and Steve Gorman
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – NASA’s next-generation moon rocket embarked on a much-anticipated, slow-motion journey Thursday from its assembly plant en route to its Florida launch pad for a final round of testing in the coming weeks that will determine how fast the spacecraft can fly.
The rollout of the 32-story Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew pod marks a major milestone in U.S. plans for renewed lunar exploration after years of setbacks, and the public’s first glimpse of a spacecraft in more than a decade in development.
The process of moving the 5.75-million-pound SLS-Orion spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Center Vehicle Assembly Building began shortly after 5:30 p.m. EDT (2130 GMT) under clear skies over Cape Canaveral. A nearly full moon rose about 90 minutes later.
The SLS-Orion, which cost about $37 billion to develop, including ground systems, is the backbone of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the moon and establish a long-lasting lunar colony as a precursor. of the eventual human exploration of Mars.
The mega-rocket – which was higher than the Statue of Liberty – was wheeled slowly to launch pad 39B atop a huge tractor track, about the size of a baseball diamond, crawling at less than a mile per hour on a 4-mile (6.5 km) journey. is expected to last approximately 11 hours. The crawler is operated by a crew of 25.
The spectacle was broadcast live on NASA Television and the space agency’s website. A University of Central Florida band played the national anthem as the rollout began before a crowd of employees and other spectators gathered outside to watch the event.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the world’s most powerful rocket, here,” NASA chief Bill Nelson told the crowd, gesturing toward the spacecraft minutes after the rollout began. “Humanity will soon embark on a new era of exploration.”
Among those in the crowd was former astronaut Tom Stafford, who orbited the moon as commander of Apollo 10 in 1969, NASA said in its webcast.
The rollout, which paved the way for NASA’s unmanned Artemis I mission around the moon and back, was delayed last month by a series of technical hurdles that the space agency said it resolved as teams prepared the rocket for the launch pad.
DRESS REFERENCE FOR LAUNCH
Once secured on the path, the SLS-Orion ship must be prepared for a critical pre-flight test, a “wet dress rehearsal,” which begins April 3 and takes about two days to complete.
Engineers plan to completely fill the SLS nuclear fuel tanks with super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant and run a simulated launch countdown — stopping seconds before the rocket’s four R-25 engines would ignite — in a top-to-bottom bottom evaluation of the whole system.
The outcome will determine when NASA will attempt the first launch of the rocket and capsule combination, a mission designated as Artemis I.
The US Apollo program sent six manned missions to the moon from 1969 to 1972, the only manned spaceflights to reach the lunar surface. Named after the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology, Artemis wants to land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon, among other things.
But NASA must take several steps before it gets there, starting with a successful Artemis I flight, planned as an unmanned journey 40,000 miles (64,374 km) beyond the moon and back.
The Orion capsule will carry a simulated crew of three – a male mannequin named “Commander Moonikin Campos”, in honor of the late NASA engineer Arturo Campos, who played a key role in returning Apollo 13 to Earth after an accident during the flight, and two female mannequins. They will all be equipped with sensors to measure the radiation level.
NASA has said it was reviewing potential Artemis I launch windows in April and May, but the timeline could shift depending on the results of the dress rehearsal.
Eight or nine days after those tests are completed and the propellant has been exhausted from the rocket, the ship is rolled back to the assembly building to await a launch date.
NASA announced in November that it would aim to achieve its first human moon landing of Artemis as early as 2025, preceded by a manned Artemis flight around the moon and back in 2024.
Both missions, and others to come, will be flown to space by the SLS, surpassing the Apollo-era Saturn V as the world’s largest and most powerful launch vehicle, and the first exploration-class rocket built by NASA. for manned spaceflights since Saturn V.
Nelson also called Artemis an “economic engine” that generated $14 billion in trade in 2019 alone and supported 70,000 jobs in the US.
(This story corrects the weight of the spacecraft to 5.75 million pounds, not tons, in Section 3)
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