For the first time in nearly 50 years, a NASA rocket capable of sending humans to the moon is sitting on its launch pad.
The overnight rollout of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, topped by an Orion capsule, evoked memories of the Saturn V rocket launches that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon from Kennedy Space Center in Florida between 1968 and 1972.
The SLS is being prepared for a monthlong test mission known as Artemis 1, which will send the Orion on an uncrewed flight around the moon and back. That flight, currently set for the May-June time frame, is due to be followed by a crewed round-the-moon mission in 2024, and then a mission to send astronauts to lunar surface in 2025.
The precise timing of all these missions depends on the outcome of on-the-ground tests of the multibillion-dollar rocket. Those tests are due to take place over the next couple of weeks and come to a climax next month with a dress rehearsal for launch.
The stage for the rehearsal was set when the 322-foot-tall, 3.5 million-pound rocket rolled out of Kennedy Space Center’s giant Vehicle Assembly Building on a crawler-transporter that was retooled from the space shuttle era. After a trek that took nearly 11 hours, the rocket was fixed in place at around 4:15 a.m. ET (1:15 a.m. PT) today at Launch Complex 39B, which was first used for Apollo 10’s launch in 1969.
“This is a great day,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press. “It was the Apollo generation. Now it’s the Artemis generation. Go into any classroom in America and talk to schoolkids. They are as excited as they can be. So this is an exciting time, and you’re going to see a lot of activity in the space program.”
NASA’s two-day “wet dress rehearsal” will involve filling the SLS rocket’s tanks with super-chilled liquid hydrogen and oxygen and ticking through all the steps leading up to ignition.
After the rehearsal, the rocket and its Orion capsule will be rolled back into the Vehicle Assembly Building for final checkouts.
The crawler-transporter’s slow progress to the pad, at a speed of less than a mile per hour, provided plenty of photo ops along the way. Here’s a sampling of the shots posted to Twitter:
The first Space Launch System rocket, the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, rolls out to the launch pad in preparation for its uncrewed test flight around the moon on Artemis I later this year (ULA photo) pic.twitter.com/pzS12XKl24
— Ben Cooper (@LaunchPhoto) March 18, 2022
Then ➡️ Now
On the left, you’ll see the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo 14 mission leaving the Vehicle Assembly Building. On the right, you’ll find the #Artemis I Moon rocket leaving the same iconic building for its journey to Launch Complex 39B: https://t.co/mYCjKp2TYU pic.twitter.com/fm0Ct7nF4b
— NASA's Kennedy Space Center (@NASAKennedy) March 18, 2022
NASA's Space Launch System and SpaceX's Starship.
These two heavy-lift rockets will return humans to the lunar surface for the first time since the end of the Apollo program in 1972. pic.twitter.com/S5NAPvoFpc
— John Kraus (@johnkrausphotos) March 18, 2022
This is what the Artemis generation is all about.
📸:NASA/Joel Kowsky pic.twitter.com/ZWqSIKNfne
— Jamie Groh, M. Ed. (@AlteredJamie) March 18, 2022
10 hours and 28 minutes.
— NASA Artemis (@NASAArtemis) March 18, 2022
Timelapse I made this morning of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket coming in & out of view through the morning fog at LC-39B🚀🤌 pic.twitter.com/iGez0v2ePg
— Trevor Mahlmann (@TrevorMahlmann) March 18, 2022
The #Artemis I launch is getting closer 😃
We just captured the SLS rocket 🚀 on its launch pad with our #PléiadesNeo 🛰 hi-res satellite.
We can't wait to see the Orion spacecraft propelled by European-built service module in space! pic.twitter.com/c6Zdo8gIJ0
— Airbus Space (@AirbusSpace) March 18, 2022
— NASA HQ PHOTO (@nasahqphoto) March 18, 2022
— Lockheed Martin Space (@LMSpace) March 18, 2022