NASA’s latest rocket

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The United States is unlikely to build a launcher like the Space Launch System again. This rocket, supposed to propel future astronauts to the Moon, thus represents the end of a story.

The most powerful rocket built by NASA since the Apollo program finally stood up for several weeks. At least, the first version of its booster. Housed in its test platform at the Stennis Space Center, Mississippi, the central section of the Space Launch System (SLS), apricot-colored, stands today as the cornerstone of NASA’s ambitions. Developed since 2011, it is indeed this rocket that will be responsible for sending crews to the Moon, and why not later to the planet Mars.

After the failure of the first static firing test of its booster, NASA has just operated a second test on Thursday. The four main engines then roared for 8 minutes and 19 seconds, enough to allow engineers to certify the first stage of their huge rocket.

This closed test, the personnel of the NASA from now on has thirty days to put back this booster and the engines of the rocket “to nine” before transferring everything to the Kennedy space center in Florida. Here, the SLS can finish being assembled (second stage + Orion capsule). Once this phase is completed, some additional tests will be scheduled before launch.

The January 16 hot shot test was interrupted after 67.2 seconds. Credit: Robert Markowitz / NASA

The SLS, a project born on the desks of senators

For now, it is still planned that this rocket will lift an Orion capsule responsible for circling the Moon before returning to Earth. Its first crewed mission is scheduled for 2023. This flight will be the first to free astronauts beyond low earth orbit since 1972.

On paper, the Space Launch System thus appears as an ambitious launcher aimed at serving missions that are just as ambitious. But it also represents something else: the end of the line. It is indeed probably the last class of rocket that NASA is likely to build.

NASA’s desire to return astronauts to deep space is not new, but the agency lacked a vehicle designed, tested and validated. Finally, here we are, but this project drags a few stones in the shoe. And for good reason, as David W. Brown underlines for the New York Times, “The Space Launch System was born not on the drafting tables of engineers, but on the desks of senators”.

And that is the problem. In 2010, members of Congress did indeed legislate the existence of this super-heavy launcher, but the policies had no particular design in mind, and a limited budget. They demanded that NASA rely on the parts of these old space shuttles as soon as possible, and demanded that the result be launched by 2016.

Today, the program is multibillion-dollar over budget, and it may not launch for the first time until 2022.

sls rocket
The first stage of the SLS launcher intended for the launch of the Artemis I mission leaves the Michoud factory. Credit: Danny Nowlin

This rocket does not represent the future

It might not have been a “problem” if NASA had been alone in the market. But today we have SpaceX. The company began transporting astronauts to the International Space Station, and is now targeting the Moon or even the planet Mars. That being said, if SpaceX’s ships go through testing, they will only be truly ready to transport astronauts beyond low earth orbit in a few years.

So in the meantime, if NASA wants to bring astronauts back to the moon, the Space Launch System remains its only way to get there. Each launch still costs around two billion dollars, and its boosters cannot be reused. However, this rocket does not represent the future. The Space Launch System is just a “useful transition product” that will inevitably lead NASA to rely on other providers for future missions.

Whether the Space Launch System program ends next year or ten years from now, it won’t be the end of a chapter, but the end of a long story.

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