NASA Rolls SLS Back for Repairs, Likely Delaying Artemis 1 Launch

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NASA was gearing up for a long-overdue test of the Space Launch System (SLS) last week, but now we’re going to have to wait a bit longer to see the Artemis I rocket run through its launch checklist. NASA has decided to roll the vehicle back to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for repairs after several issues appeared during inspections. This most likely means the first launch of NASA’s new moon mission will be delayed… again. 

Work began on the SLS more than a decade ago, and when it’s complete, it will be the most powerful rocket in the world. Assuming, of course, that NASA gets the SLS flying before SpaceX can finish the Starship and Super Heavy. That is looking increasingly questionable with the latest setback. NASA has tried three times to fuel the SLS for what is known as a “wet dress,” during which the rocket is made ready for flight and runs through most of the launch countdown. This allows engineers to monitor all the vehicle’s systems to ensure they are ready for the real deal. 

NASA was planning to conduct the test late last week, but it noted a few issues with the launch tower and internal valves. At first, NASA said it was going ahead with a modified wet dress rehearsal, which would have seen only the first stage filled with fuel. That never happened, and the agency announced over the weekend that it would send the SLS back to the VAB to address the apparent hardware issues. A third-party supplier of gaseous nitrogen also needs to make some upgrades, so NASA figured it was worth pulling the rocket back. 

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion spacecraft aboard is seen atop a mobile launcher as it rolls out of High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building for the first time to Launch Complex 39B, Thursday, March 17, 2022.

Before this delay, NASA planned to launch Artemis 1 for real in June, but you can understand the need for perfection. While this mission will not include a crew, a failure could spell doom for the Space Launch System. This is an expendable design like the Saturn V from the Apollo era, so NASA must build a new rocket for each of the five planned launches. At a cost between two and four billion dollars each (depending on who you ask), there’s no room in the budget for do-overs. 

When it does launch, Artemis 1 will send an Orion capsule to the moon. It will loop around Earth’s satellite and then return home, demonstrating that the spacecraft is safe for human transport. The delays have already cost SLS one mission: the agency no longer plans to use the SLS for Europa Clipper, which will now launch atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy. Before long, Starship may be the company’s main platform, and it promises much lower costs than SLS. In fact, SpaceX will develop a version of Starship for surface landings starting with Artemis 3. That rocket has yet to reach orbit, but it has conducted a high-altitude test. We’ll see if the SLS can beat Starship to orbit in a few weeks. SpaceX says its first orbital test of Starship could happen this summer.

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