NASA begins final preparations for maiden flight of $4.1 billion SLS rocket

With a week to go until launch, mission managers met Monday to review preparations for the maiden unmanned flight of NASA’s massive $4.1 billion Space Launch System rocket.

Assuming there are no unexpected problems, managers are expected to give the launch team the go-ahead to begin a 46-hour, 10-minute countdown at 10:23 a.m. EDT on Saturday, setting the stage for an 8:33 a.m. explosion. on Monday, the start of a two-hour window.

“Honored to attend the @NASAArtemis flight readiness assessment today,” tweeted Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s director of space science. “Many years in the making, thousands of people doing their best – we’re reaching this major milestone.”

The SLS is the most powerful operational rocket in the world, eclipsing the legendary Saturn 5 rocket that propelled the Apollo astronauts to the moon.

Generating 8.8 million pounds of thrust from two extended solid-fuel boosters and four upgraded Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines, the 5.5 million-pound SLS rocket is expected to hit 100 mph — straight ahead — in about seven seconds, putting on the ground – shocking sight for thousands of spaceport workers, local residents and tourists.

If all goes well, the Boeing-built base stage, Northrop Grumman strap-on boosters and an upper stage provided by United Launch Alliance will propel an Orion crew capsule around the moon and back. The 42-day mission is expected to end with a crash in the Pacific Ocean west of San Diego on October 10.

The Space Launch System's moon rocket atop pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.  / Credit: William Harwood/CBS News

The Space Launch System’s moon rocket atop pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center. / Credit: William Harwood/CBS News

The Artemis 1 mission’s top priority is to test the Lockheed Martin capsule’s 16.5-foot-wide heat shield and its ability to protect the craft when it hits the atmosphere on Oct. 10 at about 25,000 mph, withstanding temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees before the parachute descent to collapse.

The successful launch of the SLS is built into this top priority because it is the rocket that will provide the energy to boost the Orion capsule past the moon to make that fiery, high-speed reentry.

Years behind schedule and billions over budget, the rocket’s maiden launch is a long-awaited milestone, but time is of the essence. Based on the ever-changing positions of the Earth and the Moon and the demands of Orion’s planned orbit, NASA has a very limited number of launch opportunities within a given period.

If the SLS rocket can’t get off the ground next Monday, the launch team will have just two more chances, on September 2 and 5, before the end of the current launch season and a trip back to the Vehicle Assembly Building to work on the maintenance of the batteries of the self-destruct system and other systems.

The next launch period opens on September 19 and closes on October 4, but it is doubtful that the rocket could be returned to the pad in time for a countdown and launch attempt. NASA will likely be forced to target the launch season after that, which opens on October 17th and runs through October 31st.

Mission managers hope it won’t come to that, and Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the first woman to serve in the position, says she’s confident her team is up to the challenge, weather permitting.

“I think we’ve done all the things you can do to be ready,” she told CBS News. “The flight hardware, it tells you when it’s ready to fly… I think it’s ready. But on launch day, I’ll know.”

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