- NASA has finished stacking the parts for its new moon rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
- The 23-story Space Launch System is taller than the Statue of Liberty and hardly fits into photos.
- NASA plans to launch SLS on an unoccupied orbit around the moon in February before flying astronauts.
NASA has finally finished building its next lunar rocket, and that’s shit.
The Space Launch System (SLS), which towers up to 322 feet, is taller than the Statue of Liberty, which is 305 feet high. The system must be large enough to produce enough power to push its Orion spacecraft all the way around the moon – 1,000 times longer than the International Space Station. NASA intends to use this launch system to put boots back on the moon’s surface for the first time since 1972 and eventually build a long-term base there.
But first, the SLS must fly around the moon without astronauts on board – a mission called Artemis I – to prove that it can safely transport humans on future flights. NASA aims to launch that mission in February.
So far this year, the agency has test-fired the rocket’s engines and sent all the parts to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. There, NASA engineers and technicians have slowly stacked the pieces of the rocket in a vertical assembly building. They secured the last piece – the Orion spacecraft – just before midnight on Thursday, making the entire system 23 floors high.
“It’s a damn sight, and it’s really nice to see,” said Mike Bolger, who manages the facilities at Kennedy, in a briefing Friday. “The rocket is so big that to fully appreciate it, you have to get a little bit from it to actually see it from top to bottom.”
SLS is three years behind schedule and nearly $ 3 billion over budget. But the rocket is finally whole, and its first launch is within NASA’s sights.
How NASA stacked its monster moon rocket
Until June, SLS ‘solid rocket amplifiers sat — white mini-rockets attached to each side of the rocket to give it an extra boost — alone in the assembly building. That was when NASA lifted the rocket’s core stage into the building and lowered it between the boosters.
The core stage is the largest piece of SLS and its structural backbone. It is also the world’s largest and most powerful rocket stage, according to NASA.
Getting the core stage into the stacking facility was not easy. NASA shared a time-lapse video of the process below.
With the core stage in play, rocket stacking began in earnest. In July, NASA added the temporary cryogenic propulsion step, which is supposed to give the Orion spacecraft one last push toward the moon after the nuclear stage falls away, high above the Earth.
Technicians then connected all the lines, called “umbilicals”, which supply power, communication and fuel to the rocket.
“While all this was going on, parallel facilities here at Kennedy, we burned up the Orion spacecraft and got it ready for flight,” Bolger said.
Finally, Orion was ready this week. NASA lifted it to the top of the vertical assembly building and lowered it onto the propulsion stage, ending the stacked rocket with a pointed top.
—NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems (@NASAGroundSys) October 22, 2021
“It’s a heck of a rocket, and Orion is a heck of a spacecraft,” Bolger said.
Now technicians have to finish the connection and integration of all the last pieces. They will perform several tests to check that the parts are working properly. If it goes according to plan, NASA plans to conduct a “wet general test” in January, practicing all practice day procedures, including filling the rocket with 730,000 gallons of liquid propellant.
If the agency is not ready to start in February, it has back-up options in March and April.