Eleven years in the making, NASA’s most powerful rocket since the Apollo program has finally stood upright. Framed by the industrial test platform on which it is mounted, the core area of the Space Launch System consists of a shiny, apricot-colored column that is cast in relief by twisting pipes and steel grids. The rocket is taller than the Statue of Liberty, the pedestal and everything, and the cornerstone of NASA’s astronaut ambitions. The launcher plays a central role in the agency’s Artemis program to bring people back to the lunar surface and later land them on Mars.
On Thursday, NASA will try to prove that the Space Launch System is ready to fly for the second time, aiming for a continuous “hot fire” of its engines for up to eight minutes. If the test goes well, the rocket’s next stop will be the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the launchpad as early as November. A capsule called Orion is expected to be lifted on a path around the moon and back. The first crewed mission is planned for 2023. This flight will be the first to lift astronauts over low-earth orbit since 1972. In fact, he will send astronauts further into space than any human has ever been before.
And yet the rocket Space Launch System is not a bold statement about the future of human space travel, but rather represents something else: the past and the end. This is the last class of missiles NASA will ever build.
However, seeing it start is actually going to mean something. NASA had long wanted to bring astronauts back into space, but couldn’t. The agency lacked a vehicle that had been designed, tested, and validated to be safe to lift people more than a few hundred miles off the ground. If this week’s test is successful and the missile flies later, the United States can say it does.
But the course did not go smoothly. The Space Launch System was not born on the drafting tables of engineers, but on the desks of senators. In 2010, Congress launched a launcher that can launch heavy things into space. Which things? TBD. And where exactly? Nobody could say for sure.
Members of Congress didn’t have a specific design in mind, but they urged NASA to rummage through boxes of old space shuttle parts whenever possible to build this thing, and requested that it be launched by 2016.
NASA was hired to build the large rocket and put together exploration programs that would use it. First, it was an asteroid missile. Then a Martian rocket. Now it’s an Artemis moon rocket. Either way, the Space Launch System is billions of dollars over budget and five years after its mandatory launch date.
A hot fire test in January disappointed NASA engineers in hopes of proving the wait was worth it. However, instead of simulating eight minutes of the loads and events of an actual start, the engines shut off after just 67.2 seconds. NASA blames “test parameters that were intentionally conservative” for the error. Engineers have since repaired a valve and replaced a faulty electrical harness that indicated a “major component failure” during testing.
The setbacks that plagued the Space Launch System are in stark contrast to what has happened in rocket science over the past decade.
If you’ve logged on to the internet for the past five years, you’ve probably seen SpaceX’s spectacular rocket launches. Elon Musk’s personal aerospace outfit has fired hundreds of satellites into space and even a Tesla sports car. The rocket amplifiers then return to Earth and land elegantly upright for reuse. On Sunday they made the round trip for the ninth time.
This private space program was funded and accelerated by NASA after the space shuttles stopped flying in 2011. Last year, SpaceX began shipping the agency’s astronauts to the International Space Station. Now the company has its sights set on people landing on the moon and Mars. SpaceX’s rockets, however, are not ready to put astronauts beyond low-earth orbit, and few other companies have shown interest in this truly long-distance travel market.
The Space Launch System is not NASA’s first attempt since Apollo to build a space rocket for the Astronaut Corps. On July 20, 1989, 20 years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, President George HW Bush committed humanity to becoming a multiplanetary species. He later offered a timetable: by 2019, the 50th anniversary of this “one giant leap”, astronauts would greet the stars and stripes from Mars.
Obviously that didn’t happen.
In 2004, George W. Bush made a commitment similar to that of his father. Much of the technology that went into the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule can be traced back to the Constellation program, which has now been canceled. In 2010, Barack Obama made his own statement asking NASA to take the rocket to Mars. The hardware has since been taken over by Artemis, NASA’s program launched by the Trump administration to land the next man and woman on the moon before heading to the red planet.
Despite the high ambitions of so many presidents, humans have remained in orbit. The ability to reach the moon is not as easy as going a little further. The space station operates approximately 250 miles above the surface of the earth. The moon is about 250,000 miles away. Accordingly, a successful launch of the space launch system after 32 years of false starts and failed programs will finally reopen the old frontiers of human space travel. NASA will again have the hardware to transport humanity to other worlds.
No other American rocket can send astronauts to the moon in a single launch. The Falcon Heavy, a large SpaceX rocket that has flown three times, is not certified for human launch. Instead, SpaceX has focused its manned space ambitions on Starship, a sleek, ambitious spaceship in development that may be years away from flying humans. If NASA is looking to bring astronauts back to the moon, the Space Launch System is currently the only game in town, even though it costs $ 2 billion per launch and cannot be reused.
SpaceX and Blue Origin, another private rocket company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, solve very difficult problems: How to build versatile rockets and crew vehicles that land so smoothly that they are reusable even with astronauts on board.
In contrast, the NASA rocket doesn’t look like a vision of the future. This is part of what makes the Space Launch System a useful transition product. There are no unusual technical hurdles to overcome. There is every reason to believe that once these missiles are proven to be airworthy, they will perform well and reliably. Until Starship or some other rocket flies safely and regularly, NASA can continue its interplanetary efforts, knowing that it has a functioning giant rocket in the meantime.
There is great value in that. The big rocket is not needed forever. It might just take long enough to get the first woman to the surface of the moon. The commercial startup sector may be ready to take it over from there.
It is highly unlikely that NASA will ever again rely on rockets it built itself. The Space Launch System is the end of the line. If the only purpose is to give the nation the time and confidence to get a private, reusable ship in space, it would have been a success.
Regardless of whether the Space Launch System program ends in the next year or the next decade, unlike the end of the Space Shuttle or Saturn 5, it will not be the end of a chapter but the end of a book. NASA will get out of the rocket business. When the next generation goes to the Kennedy Space Center and sees a huge old booster for the Space Launch System, the tour guide says, “They don’t do it like that anymore,” and that will be true – literally.
David W. Brown is a journalist who writes about space travel. He is the author of “The Mission,” an investigation into NASA’s long quest to build a spaceship to explore Jupiter’s moon, Europa.