NASA has finally set a new launch date for the often delayed first flight of its Space Launch System rocket. The official date is expected to be announced next week, said a senior agency engineer.
At a meeting of the NASA Advisory Board committee, Tom Whitmeyer said the launch date would be “by the end of next year”. This mission, nicknamed Artemis I by NASA, is considered the agency’s first step back to the Moon. The unmanned test flight, which will last between 26 and 42 days, will insert Orion into a lunar orbit before the distant capsule returns to Earth.
In development since 2011, the Space Launch System rocket cost NASA nearly $ 20 billion and has been criticized for both its cost and its slow development. But thanks in large part to the unwavering support of Congress, NASA has continued to develop.
Most of the rocket’s delays have focused on the rocket’s Core Stage, which houses large tanks of liquid oxygen and hydrogen propellant, and four main engines of the space shuttle. The main contractor on the scene, Boeing, assumes a large part of the responsibility, but more recently, NASA cited the COVID-19 crisis for a slowdown in works.
Working on the green trail
The next key test is a long-term shot of the Core Stage and its engines at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. However, due to the coronavirus, NASA has closed the facility in the past two months. Now, said Whitmeyer, key personnel are beginning to return to the test facility, but they do not expect a full complement of employees until this summer.
In January, John Shannon of Boeing says the business and NASA hoped to complete the Green Run test in July or August. And officials said work on the Core Stage was progressing well before the spread of COVID-19 in March near Stennis.
Now, according to Whitmeyer, this critical shot from the Green Run test can take place around this year’s Thanksgiving. If all goes well with this test – which is not a guarantee, considering that they are testing the large vehicle for the first time with refrigerated hydrogen – the Core Stage could be shipped to the Kennedy Space Center late 2020 or early 2021. This will set the rocket stack in motion for launch at the end of next year.
While COVID-19 has been the target of public criticism, it has been evident for some time that the SLS rocket is unlikely to launch before the second half of 2021 at the earliest. Ars reported as much in July of last year. It also seems likely that NASA will have to return to Congress at some point to request even more funding to make a launch date in late 2021.
Calendar slips are an integral part of the SLS program. In 2014 and 2015, the “formal” launch date was at the end of 2017. It has since slipped almost from year to year. Meanwhile, Orion waits in storage for its space journey.