It is happening. NASA is finally ready to launch its massive Space Launch System rocket, and barring disaster, the Orion spaceship will fly to the Moon and back.
The space agency’s final pre-launch preparations for this Artemis I mission are going so well, in fact, that NASA now plans to taxi the rocket to Launch Pad 39B as early as Tuesday, August 16 at 9 p.m. ET (01 00 UTC Wednesday). That’s two days ahead of the previously announced rollout schedule.
This earlier date for the rocket’s deployment follows the completion of a flight termination system test over the weekend. This was the last major launch system and spacecraft test before deployment and marks the completion of all major pre-launch activities. NASA continues to target three dates to attempt the launch of Artemis I: August 29, September 2, and September 5.
The flight termination system is an isolated component of the rocket. If there is a problem during liftoff, ground controllers can send a signal to the stop-flight system to destroy the rocket before it veers off course and threatens a populated area.
Since this termination system is separate from the rocket, it has an independent power supply that is only rated for about three weeks. This limit is determined by the US Space Force, which operates the Eastern Range, including the Kennedy Space Center. The problem for NASA is that one of its proposed launch dates, September 5, fell outside this prescribed limit.
However, NASA said it received a Space Launch Delta 45 extension on flight termination system validation of 20–25 days before it was due for retesting. The waiver will be valid throughout attempts to launch Artemis I, NASA said. However, if the mission fails to launch on any of these three attempts due to weather conditions, a technical problem or other frictional reasons, the rocket will have to be returned to the rocket assembly building. vehicles to work on the flight termination system.
Each of the three upcoming launch opportunities would enable a “long class” mission for the Orion spacecraft, which will be uncrewed and fly in lunar orbit for several weeks before returning to Earth and crashing into the Pacific Ocean. The missions would last between 39 and 42 days.
The Artemis I mission represents a significant step forward for NASA and its ambitions for a human deep space exploration program. The rocket’s next launch will carry four astronauts around the Moon, and its third launch is expected to make a human landing there, possibly in the mid-2020s.
The SLS rocket program has often been criticized for its long delays and over $20 billion price tag. But with a successful launch in a few weeks, the space agency will be able to put at least one of those criticisms to bed by proving the massive rocket works as intended.