NASA’s new giant rocket began its first transfer to a launch pad on Thursday to undergo a series of tests that, if successful, will allow it to embark on its mission to reach the Moon this summer.
The SLS rocket left the assembly building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida around 5:47 p.m. (21:47 GMT) and will take eleven hours to arrive, transported by a huge vehicle, to the legendary launch complex 39B, located just over six kilometers of distance.
With the Orion capsule at its tip, the SLS rocket is 98 meters tall, taller than the Statue of Liberty, but slightly less than the 110 meters of the Saturn V rocket, which sent man to the Moon during the Apollo missions. .
A symbol of the country
However, the SLS will have a thrust of 39.1 meganewtons, 15% more than Saturn V, making it the most powerful rocket in the world. “It’s a symbol of our country,” Tom Whitmeyer, a senior NASA official, told reporters this week.
A symbol, however, accompanied by a bill of 4,100 million dollars (3,700 million euros) per launch for the first four Artemis missions to the Moon, the inspector general of the US space agency, Paul Martin, stressed before Congress this month. .
Once it hits the launch pad, engineers will have about two weeks to run a series of tests before a pre-launch dress rehearsal. On April 3, the SLS team will load more than three million liters of cryogenic fuel into the rocket and repeat each stage of the countdown until the last 10 seconds, without starting the engines. The rocket will then be defueled for a safe aborted launch demonstration.
To the Moon and beyond
NASA is targeting a May first launch window for Artemis 1, an unmanned lunar mission that will be the first to combine the SLS rocket and Orion capsule. The SLS will first place Orion in low Earth orbit before, thanks to its upper stage, performing a “translunar injection”. This maneuver is necessary to send Orion more than 450,000 km from Earth and almost 64,000 km beyond the Moon, farther than any other manned spacecraft.
During its three-week mission, Orion will deploy ten shoebox-sized satellites called CubeSats that will collect information about deep space. The capsule will travel to the far side of the Moon using its thrusters provided by the European Space Agency (ESA), and then return to Earth, specifically to the Pacific, off the coast of California.
We will have to wait for Artemis 2, scheduled for 2024, to see a manned test flight. Then the capsule will go around the Moon, without landing on it, while Artemis 3, scheduled for 2025 at the earliest, will take the first woman and the first black person to lunar soil, at the south pole of the satellite. NASA wants to test some technologies on the Moon that it wants to use during its future missions to Mars in the 2030s. With its launch SLS will enter the category of “super-heavy” launchers, for the moment only made up of Space X’s Falcon Heavy, which is smaller than the SLS.
Elon Musk’s company is developing another deep-space rocket: Starship, which is fully reusable and which the billionaire said would be ready for an orbital test this year. Starship will be bigger and more powerful than the SLS: at 120 meters tall, it will have an output of 75 meganewtons and will be much cheaper.
According to Elon Musk, within a few years the cost per launch could be reduced to 10 million dollars (9 million euros). But the two rockets are not comparable: The SLS is designed to go directly to its final destination, while SpaceX plans to launch a Starship rocket into orbit and then resupply it with another Starship rocket to extend its range and payload. NASA has also contracted with SpaceX for a version of Starship that would be used as a lunar landing vehicle for Artemis.