NASA’s Space Launch System has roared off the Kennedy Space Center launch pad and into the record books, for now.
The SLS rocket, using a combination of two solid rocket boosters with a center stage made up of four repurposed RS-25 engines from the Space Shuttle program, produced 8.8 million pounds of thrust to lift the Orion spacecraft into orbit and help send him on his way to the moon for the Artemis I uncrewed mission.
Its success makes it the most powerful rocket ever launched into space, surpassing the power of the Saturn V rockets used on the Apollo lunar missions five decades ago, which produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust.
The Soviet Union tried to launch a rocket called N-1 in four attempts from 1969 to 1972 that produced 10.2 million pounds of thrust, but they all failed in midair and never reached the space.
That makes SLS the king of space rockets, and its performance was near perfect, said Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis mission manager.
“I will just say that the results have been stunning. The rocket performed and/or exceeded expectations,” he said at a recent press conference.
The design of the SLS is similar to the Approach Space Shuttle, whose launches produced just over 6.4 million pounds of thrust during their run from 1981 to 2011. Space Shuttle launches, however , had only three RS-25 engines fed by fuel from the enormous external fuel tank, while its two solid rocket boosters were not as large as the SLS versions, which chain together in five segments at the instead of four.
It should be noted that the reusable RS-25s have all flown several shuttle missions, including Atlantis, Endeavour, Discovery and even one used on a previous flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia before it was destroyed in 2003 while returning from orbit. .
NASA touts SLS as the only rocket capable of carrying both crew and cargo to its deep space destinations. An Artemis II crewed flight on an orbital lunar mission is scheduled for May 2024 at the earliest.
Artemis III, which seeks to return humans, including the first woman, to the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972, is slated for the following year at the earliest.
Starting with Artemis IV, a larger version of the SLS using what NASA calls the Upper Exploration Stage, seeks to transport parts from a small lunar space station called Gateway to help lay the groundwork for a continuous presence on the moon. Beginning with Artemis IX likely not until the 2030s, a new version of solid rocket boosters seeks to increase the power of SLS to 9.2 million pounds of liftoff thrust.
That future, however, could see Elon Musk’s in-development spacecraft with Super Heavy booster for SpaceX not only take the title of most powerful rocket to orbit, but also be seen as an alternative for launch capability. crew and cargo.
Using 33 of SpaceX’s new Raptor 2 engines, the Super Heavy booster will produce 17 million pounds of liftoff thrust, nearly double what was seen, heard and felt during the launch of Artemis I.
The Starship itself has six Raptor 2 engines and will have the capacity to deliver over 220,000 pounds of crew and cargo to low Earth orbit, which is slightly more than the current capacity of the SLS.
The Starship and Super Heavy combination is preparing for its first orbital test flight from SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. It performed a final static fire on Nov. 14 with 14 of the engines with Musk posting on Twitter the launch attempt could happen before the end of this year.
The increasing rate of Raptor static fires follows a July incident that left the booster in need of repairs when SpaceX ignited all 33, resulting in a fireball on the pad.
Combined, Starship and Super Heavy are 395 feet tall. SpaceX has said it prefers to keep Starship test flights in Texas, but is also building launch facilities for the next-generation rocket at KSC, where it launches its current stable of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.
“SpaceX is moving at the speed of light to gain the capability to conduct launch operations here,” said Frank DiBello, president and CEO of Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development agency. “So we’re very optimistic that it won’t be long.”
But the first launch will be from Texas with Starship separating from the Super Heavy booster, which will land on a SpaceX craft 20 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Starship then seeks to orbit for at least one trip around Earth and land in the Pacific Ocean. It’s unclear how many test launches will take place from Texas before operations begin in Florida.
“It’s a big vehicle, there’s no doubt about it, and I think it’ll be a sight to behold no matter where it’s launched from, but I expect Starship’s workhorse function be conducted here,” DiBello said. “That’s our goal anyway. We’re partnering with SpaceX to try to make that happen.
NASA officials have a vested interest in getting Starship to operational status quickly, as a version of it will be used for Artemis III. During this flight, the astronauts will be transferred from Orion to a spacecraft in orbit around the moon, and it is the spacecraft that will take them down and back up from the lunar surface.
NASA last week also awarded SpaceX the planned Artemis IV landing, although future landers from other companies may continue to compete for Artemis contracts. With a test flight to the moon before Artemis III required, SpaceX now has three lunar missions for NASA on the books.
“Much appreciated, SpaceX will not let NASA down!” Musk wrote on Twitter after the award was announced.
Musk also congratulated NASA after the successful launch of Artemis I.
This launch actually propelled SpaceX’s other big rocket – Falcon Heavy – to the top of the list of most powerful active rockets. To date, SpaceX has only launched Falcon Heavy four times. The most recent happened on November 1 from KSC, and it was the first in over three years.
The first Falcon Heavy flight in 2018 was a spectacle drawing hundreds of thousands to the Space Coast for a test flight that sent Musk’s Tesla roadster into deep space orbit.
A Falcon 9 rocket produces 1.7 million pounds of thrust, and a Falcon Heavy is basically three Falcon 9s strung together to produce over 5 million pounds of power.
On the KSC press site, the rumble of the Falcon Heavy is ringing car alarms, just like when NASA launched the shuttles more than a decade ago. Falcon Heavy launches have the added treatment of double sonic booms produced when SpaceX lands both side booster stages at nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
The most recent launch and landing, which took place while KSC was shrouded in fog, actually produced a shock wave that sent clothes flying while bouncing an echo off the massive building. assembly of vehicles that looked like someone igniting bottle rockets.
Although there was no sonic boom for the launch of Artemis I, it provided amplified thrills that overshadowed the power of Falcon Heavy.
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The cheers from the crowd began once they saw the smoke and flames from Launch Pad 39-B just over 3 miles away, followed by the increasing roar about 10 seconds after the flight reached a crescendo about 45 seconds after takeoff.
The pressure was building in the ear like the muffled sounds of waking from a dream, building momentum until it became a crackling series of jerky thuds at the senses. It could even be felt in the chest as the swelling cacophony of the distant burn of 1,500 gallons of propellant per second left onlookers wondering when it would stop.
The rumble lasted for more than two minutes, with the crowd cheering a bit halfway through before becoming eerily quiet as the rocket continued to climb in altitude, then finally returning to a distant, faded rumble. Then the crowd went wild again.
The Space Coast has plenty of little rumbles in the form of Falcon 9 and United Launch Alliance flights that regularly delight rocket fans, set to launch more than once a week this year.
But these big rumblings are rare. SLS won’t fly again for at least 18 months, though SpaceX has a few Falcon Heavy launches over the coming year, including the USSF-67 mission for the Space Force in January.
This will have to keep the rocket power strong until Artemis II lines up for NASA launch or SpaceX sends Starship to the Space Coast.
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