In a press conference Thursday, NASA described the final steps in anticipation of the Artemis 1 uncrewed test flight, which set to occur this spring. The immediate focus is on a “wet dress rehearsal” of the Orion spacecraft that is scheduled for mid-March. Eventually, the Artemis program aims to put humans on the Moon for the first time this century.
The next test will involve rolling the Orion spacecraft and the giant Space Launch System rocket out to the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Once in place, the rocket stage will be filled with fuel and the NASA team will test its countdown, stopping just short of the big T-minus zero. NASA has been testing and retesting these elements for years, including splashdown tests of Orion for its return to Earth. Earlier this week, NASA announced that engine tests of SLS had gone well after a mishap late last year.
“The crawler-transporter will transport… an over 17-million-pound stack to launch complex 39B,” Mike Bolger, exploration ground system program manager at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, said in the press conference. “The top of the umbilical tower will be over 400 feet off the ground when it’s riding on top of the crawler-transporter, so it’s really going to be a sight.”
The transport will tentatively begin at 6:00 p.m. EST on March 17, Bolger said. Ordinarily, these procedures (called “rollout”) would kickoff at midnight, but the NASA team wanted more people to be able to experience the gargantuan task in real time.
NASA workers will remove 20 large platforms—10 on either side of the rocket, each as large as a basketball court—before the transport. The platforms allow engineers access to different parts of the spacecraft.
The crawler-transporter truly crawls along the ground; its speed will vary from 0.1 miles per hour to 0.82 miles per hour. It will take the transporter over 11 hours to traverse less than 5 miles to the launchpad.
Once SLS and Orion are at the pad, the wet dress rehearsal will take place. The rocket will be filled with propellant—liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen—and the team will do a countdown, though they will scrub before launch. Then, the team will detank and leave the vehicle on the pad.
Uncertainty remains about the date of Artemis 1, the test flight. “We continue to evaluate the May window, but we’re also recognizing that there’s a lot of work in front of us and we need to get through that testing,” said Tom Whitmeyer, the deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA.
While it’s a little frustrating not to know the big day, NASA’s hesitancy is well-founded. Deadlines have a bad habit of getting pushed back in spaceflight; the inaugural launch of SLS was most recently planned for February 12, 2022. So for now, we’ll have to keep our eyes on the wet dress rehearsal next month.
The Artemis program is a series of missions leading up to a crewed Moon landing. The missions are intended to include some historic firsts, including the first woman and person of color on the Moon, and have a slew of scientific goals. But before the first crewed mission, Artemis 2, the uncrewed Artemis 1 will need to make it past the Moon and back.