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NASA prepares to launch a big next-generation rocket which is called the Space Launch System (SLS) for the first time in February of 2022. If this crucial test flight brings success, NASA will send people back to the Moon. However, The Verge notices that a lot of tests need to achieve positive results before such an arguable vehicle can take people to the Moon. 

The company confirmed the new target date a day after its engineers stacked all parts of the Space Launch System together inside NASA’s massive hangar at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Standing at 322 feet high, the SLS rises taller than the Statue of Liberty. NASA put the Orion crew capsule on top of the vehicle. It’s a new spacecraft that’s been developed to deliver people into deep space. But, the SLS will fly without any people aboard next year. The test mission will send an empty Orion capsule on a four- to six-week-long trip around the Moon.

The Space Launch System
Image credit: NASA

The SLS first flight is called Artemis I, which is the first major flight in NASA’s Artemis program. If the flight is successful, the SLS and Orion’s next mission will be Artemis II, which will carry NASA astronauts on a similar trajectory around the Moon. The culmination of the program will be the landing on the surface of the Moon with the first woman and the first person of color. During the Trump administration, Vice President Mike Pence challenged NASA to make this landing happen as early as 2024.

The Space Launch System needs more test

Such a mission is a tough and challenging task, so the date has been delayed several times. Originally, NASA envisioned the SLS flying for the first time back in 2017. But, the flight didn’t take place, because of the poor management and cost overruns. Nowadays, NASA also seeks for the lunar lander that can bring people down to the surface of the Moon, which the SLS and Orion can’t do alone.

Image credit: theverge.com

The space agency awarded SpaceX a contract to develop its new vehicle, called Starship, to take people to the Moon’s surface. But the vehicle still has a long road of development ahead, and lawsuits filed by competitor Blue Origin, which did not receive the NASA contract, have complicated the process. Then there is still the matter of developing new spacesuits, which could also hold up the timeline.

Despite all that, NASA hasn’t quite given up on the 2024 target date, even after Joe Biden became president. “It’s a stretch, it’s a challenge, but the schedule is 2024,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in June. Nelson also recently acknowledged the sheer amount of work and obstacles that need to be overcome.

NASA puts Artemis I liftoff as a core mission for now. If it brings success, NASA wants to roll out the fully stacked SLS out of the launch platform later. In early 2022, the mission team will conduct what’s known as a wet dress rehearsal, where they will fill the rocket with the same propellants it will use for flight but without igniting the rocket’s engines. After that, NASA will bring the rocket back to the hangar and provide it with some more additional checks before launching it again.

“I tell you I couldn’t be prouder of the team that got us to where we are today, despite the multiple challenges that we faced with COVID and major storms — most recently, Hurricane Ida — and the impacts that had on our testing facilities,” John Honeycutt, the SLS program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said during a press conference today.

As of now, Artemis I has three different launch windows: one in February, one in March, and one in April. Each window, dictated by how the Earth is moving about its axis and the Moon’s rotation around our planet, is roughly 15 days long, with the first window opening on February 12th. The timing of the launch within the window dictates how long Artemis I will stay in space, making it either a four-week mission or a six-week mission.

Once Artemis I is complete, then comes Artemis II with a target launch date sometime in 2023. For that flight, people will be on board, which means the vehicle will need even more additions, notably a life support system. NASA would not say whether the latest SLS delays have pushed back Artemis II, only that an update is on its way.

“I think the agency is continuing to look at that; we’re evaluating the status of that mission,” Tom Whitmeyer, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA, said during today’s press conference.

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