After years of preparation and two false starts, NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System has finally lifted off and entered orbit. It’s a big win for the space agency — nonetheless instead assigning tasks once intended for SLS to SpaceX.
Some pre-launch jitters threatened to prevent launch, but a “red crew” went to the hot pad to tighten something up, and later a bad ethernet switch of all things also had to be replaced. But it all came together about 40 minutes after the original T-0 and the rocket had a clean (and impressive looking) climb with no problems to speak of. It reached orbit and as of 13 minutes after launch the various stages, separations and aborts were all green everywhere.
SLS is a key part of NASA’s Artemis program, designed to return humanity to the Moon “to stay,” as they often emphasize. That means getting a lot of equipment there, stuff that could take years to transport on smaller launch vehicles like the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Rocket Lab Electron.
SLS was designed with this kind of heavy-lift mission in mind, but setbacks and delays have plagued the program, and there is now considerable speculation that commercial heavy-lift vehicles may soon offer more for the money. But it’s also clearly important for the US government to have an option that it owns from the top down.
Now that the massive “Mega Lunar Rocket” has shown it can reach space, NASA can at least plan to put the model into service, even though it will mean building a new one each time — unlike some launch vehicles, this one doesn’t is reusable.
You can watch the final countdown and takeoff here:
The upcoming mission
The primary purpose of the Artemis I mission is to test the Orion spacecraft and its critical components, such as the re-entry heat shield and communications systems, before the capsule eventually carries humans later this decade. The capsule will spend about 10 weeks traveling from orbit to the moon and back before descending back to Earth in the Pacific Ocean, where it will be retrieved by a US Navy ship.
NASA of course has a more detailed but easy to understand mission planand the diagram below shows it very briefly:
It was NASA’s third attempt to launch the Space Launch System rocket. The first, which was held in August, was canceled due to hydrogen discharge line problem with one of the rocket’s four main stage engines; the second attempt a few days later was cleared for the same reason. It seems the third time was the charm after all.
This mission will have many more decisive and historic moments, so stay tuned for more as the Orion capsule makes its way to the moon.