KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.—After writing about NASA’s Space Launch System rocket for a dozen years—certainly well into the hundreds of thousands of words—I have nothing more to say about the big orange booster.
Good, almost. What I would like to say is that it is time, really beyond time, for this mission to take off.
As NASA sought to build public interest in the Artemis program and build momentum for the Artemis I launch of an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to the Moon and back, the space agency has increasingly used the slogan “We are going there”.
The response of much of the space community to this can be summed up succinctly: “We are ready for you to go.”
As we look forward to tonight’s launch attempt, with a two-hour window opening at 1:04 a.m. ET (06:04 UTC), it’s worth reflecting on what happened before. understand why this moment is so late.
The Space Launch System rocket was created in 2010 by just two US senators: a Democrat from Florida, Bill Nelson, and a Republican from Texas, Kay Bailey Hutchison. Hutchison retired in 2013 and Nelson lost re-election in 2019, so the long and expensive rocket development program outlived their two political careers.
The SLS rocket was a political compromise, keeping major defense contractors who previously had part of the space shuttle program on NASA’s budget and preserving space agency jobs in Florida, Texas and Alabama. It worked very well.
Unfortunately, politically constructed rockets aren’t the most efficient space vehicles, so it took a long, pothole-filled path to reach the launch pad.
When Nelson and Hutchison first came up with this rocket design in 2010, working closely with Boeing and other top contractors, hopes were high. The rocket would use the Space Shuttle’s main engines and a slightly modified version of its solid rocket boosters. The main propellant tank would have the same diameter as the shuttle’s external tanks. This would greatly facilitate the path of development, the senators explained.
That summer, they negotiated with key figures in the United States House, such as Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon of Tennessee. Nelson promised the rocket would be ready by 2015 at a cost of $11.5 billion. Gordon knew better. “He doesn’t think we can do a heavy rocket for $11.5 billion,” Nelson said of Gordon at the time. “If we can’t make a rocket for $11.5 billion, we have to close up shop.”
Eventually, Nelson and Hutchison would get their legislation in the form of a NASA authorization bill. This fall, the calendar had already slipped a bit. When the legislation creating the rocket was enacted in October 2010, the space launch system had to be operational no later than December 2016. That was the law of the land.
Four years later, NASA took its first step in developing a large rocket and the Orion spacecraft that would eventually become key parts of the Artemis program. This was Exploration Flight Test-1, in which Orion would be launched on a commercial rocket to, essentially, test its heat shield during a high-energy return from an altitude of 5,800 km.
At the time of this test on December 5, 2014, NASA officials were on hold. In just three years, they promised the public, Orion would be back on the launch pad, this time sitting atop the Space Launch System rocket. Yes, the first launch of the Space Launch System had slipped a bit, but it was only a year old.
Well, that was eight years ago. The only real takeaway from Exploration Flight Test-1 is that there are commercially available rockets – the mission flew on United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy rocket – that can propel Orion into deep space. .
Two years later, NASA continued to demonstrate progress. That spring, the space agency began testing the Space Shuttle program’s remaining main engines.
The first of these engines, number 2059, fired for 500 seconds on a test bed at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi. It hadn’t been used since 2011 when it powered the space shuttle Effort on what was the penultimate flight of the Space Shuttle program. Later that year, during a visit to the Michoud Assembly Facility, I was able to see flight hardware that NASA was building for the first launch of the SLS vehicle. Maybe, I thought, we were going.
At the time, there was still hope for a 2018 launch.
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