NASA’s controversial mega-rocket launched for the first time

After a decade of delays, controversy and huge costs, the space launch system is finally approaching the fateful date of the Artemis 1 mission.

Better late than never. After over a decade of painstaking development and countless delays, the space launch system is finally out of its lair for the first time. An important step for this colossal rocket, topped by an Orion capsule, that will take four astronauts to the moon.

On Thursday afternoon, the public gathered en masse at the foot of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the assembly center of the legendary Kennedy Space Center. They managed to attend the release of this giant from 98 m high, is transported using a platform mounted on tracks. Slowly but surely, he ferried the structure to the launch pad on a strenuous journey that lasted about 11 hours.

Finish line before the first flight

In the coming days and weeks, NASA will connect the machine to all hydraulic systems, which will allow it to be serviced before takeoff. First, it will be necessary to ensure the operation of all systems and devices, then attack the gas station.

At this time, the agency will be able to attack the latest challenge of this series, namely “wet dress rehearsal“. In fact, this is a sequence of tests and training for ground crews, which is as close as possible to real conditions. First, it consists in filling the tanks with liquid hydrogen and oxygen, the combination of which will allow the car to move.

The main goal is to make sure that all systems, and in particular the engines, function properly once the rocket is loaded with these fluids (hence the term wet, which means “wet” in English). They will also test ground systems and interfaces between various elements of the rocket. The engineers will also take this opportunity to rehearse some complex scenarios such as the emergency shutdown procedure.

As soon as this wet dress rehearsal completed, the rocket will be almost ready for its first flight. She will then take the opposite route and take shelter in the VAB for the last time. The engineers will then be able to test all the instruments and subsystems one last time before the big departure.

The very first test flight of the SLS is scheduled for May or June next year, once these final preparations have been completed. At that moment, it will launch into the orbit of the Moon to deliver the famous Orion capsule there, but without an astronaut on board.

Indeed, this first mission, soberly dubbed Artemis 1, will not yet be designed to return astronauts to the Moon. Initially, the task is to put the capsule into orbit around the moon in order to test all the equipment in real conditions. It will then return to Earth before crashing into the middle of the ocean… and this is a moment that leaves many wondering.

© Boeing

A long way across between delays and disputes

Because even if this first flight obviously represents an important step to be applauded, the program is not free from reproach and uncertainty. Far from there. Because the SLS and Orion are part of a project that began in 2010, long before the US administration officially made the decision to return to the Moon. And at that time the landscape was noticeably different.

Because SpaceX threw not a stone into the aerospace pond, but a huge menhir. Since its meteoric rise, the industry has begun to emulate its model based on reusable vehicles; an approach that seems far more suited to the challenges that await this industry at the turn.

The problem is that NASA’s plans for SLS haven’t changed one iota during this time. This giant is still a disposable launcher; a model that seems a little outdated, even completely outdated in the current context. A painful observation, given that NASA estimates it will still have to spend over $50 billion on the Artemis program by 2025, including over $4 billion to launch the SLS…

This already sensitive issue took on even more importance as delays and cost overruns began to pile up, in part due to Boeing negligence (see our article). Despite this financial hole, NASA has always been more optimistic. She continues to defend her program with all her might. In particular, she claims that the price per launch will drop significantly after the first three missions.

Note also that NASA does not bear full responsibility for this situation. The aerospace industry is a sector where these delays are so frequent that they are almost part of the routine. On the other hand, the budget allocated by the NASA administration for the implementation of this program has not changed one iota.

Either way, the SLS-Orion duo should make it possible to return to the Moon as planned. It will first pass through the Artemis 1 mission mentioned above, and then through Artemis 2, which this time will send astronauts into orbit around the Moon. A moon landing is planned for Artemis 3, probably not before 2026. But after that date, the future of SLS looks relatively uncertain.

SLS, stillborn giant?

Admittedly, the vehicle has been optimized for this unique use, with boosters in particular, which are very inexpensive to manufacture. But in the end, the conclusion remains the same; in its current form, this approach is clearly contrary to the current trend, and the SLS-Orion duo certainly does not seem compatible with the aerospace industry of the future.

If, therefore, the public and professionals are waiting for a return to the Moon with undisguised feverish anticipation, these are all the same important considerations that can greatly influence the organization of NASA. So it will be interesting to see which approach is preferred.

Will the agency step back and develop a new system? Enough unlikely taking into account the amounts and time required to create such a project; SLS officials know this all too well. Moreover, it would be a rather inglorious admission of weakness.

Would he then decide to completely abandon the idea of ​​developing his own vehicles and outsource that aspect to a third party like SpaceX? Or, on the contrary, will it continue to operate this launcher, already retrograde even before its inauguration, until 2030, as it is still planned in the current program? Very smart who can answer this question; failing to get our crystal ball, so we’re making an appointment with you in 2026 to find out for sure.

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