Alexander Polimeni | Staff Writer

For the first time in 48 years, a human-capable spacecraft destined for the Moon rolled out of NASA’s Armstrong Operations & Checkout Facility, in preparation for a launch in late 2021. 

On Jan. 16, the Orion spacecraft emerged from its assembly hangar at a crawling speed, bound for the Multi-Purpose Processing Facility, the vehicle’s final stop before it is mated to its rocket. At the MMPF, the spacecraft will be fueled prior to launch. This particular propellant is used to maneuver Orion while in space, along with returning the capsule to Earth.

“I’m incredibly excited to service Orion at our rocket fuel gas station,” said Marcos Pena, a NASA manager based out of the MMPF, in a NASA press release.

NASA Prepares to Return Humans to the Moon

Orion rolls from the Operations and Checkout Facility on Saturday. The spacecraft is protected by a tarp. Photo: Alexander Polimeni

Later that day, the core stage, the largest component of the 321-foot tall Space Launch System rocket, completed an engine firing test in the swamps of Mississippi. A whopping 1,670,000 pounds of thrust was unleashed on the test stand for approximately one minute, marking the first ignition of the most powerful rocket in the world, according to Boeing, the manufacturer of the core stage. While the test ended earlier than planned, it was designed to iron out any issues with the rocket before shipping to the Kennedy Space Center. 

“Seeing all four engines ignite for the first time during the core stage hot fire test was a big milestone for the Space Launch System team,” said John Honeycutt, the SLS program manager, in a NASA press release.

When SLS arrives in Florida, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage will be lifted atop the 212-foot tall core stage. After launching atop the core stage, the United Launch Alliance-built ICPS will separate in space, and boost the Orion spacecraft to the Moon. Already complete, ICPS underwent periodic maintenance at the Delta Operations Center, at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, in December, according to ULA.

NASA Prepares to Return Humans to the Moon

Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) sits inside the International Space Station Processing Facility, awaiting launch. The silo-like structure protects its delicate engine. Photo: Alexander Polimeni

The Exploration Ground Systems team at the Kennedy Space Center has been preparing to receive components and assemble the first SLS rocket. EGS has begun stacking the massive 12-foot wide solid rocket booster segments according to NASA, each producing 3,280,000 pounds of thrust at launch. Two of these solid rocket boosters will be strapped to the side of the core stage. 

A series of rollout tests have been completed with the rocket’s Mobile Launch Platform, a steel skyscraper used to transport the rocket to the launch pad vertically. The MLP will endure the brunt of the weight; 5.75 million pounds when SLS is fully fueled. 

“Stacking the first piece of the SLS rocket on the mobile launcher marks a major milestone for the Artemis Program,” said Andrew Shroble, a manager with NASA contractor Jacobs. “It shows the mission is truly taking shape and will soon head to the launch pad.”

NASA Prepares to Return Humans to the Moon

Mobile Launch Platform rolls back inside the Vehicle Assembly Building, after undergoing testing at the launch pad in 2018. Photo: Alexander Polimeni

The mission is named Artemis I, after the sister of Apollo, an apt allusion to the program that landed humans on the Moon in the 1960s. This uncrewed shakedown test of the launch vehicle and spacecraft will involve the insertion of Orion in lunar orbit, and spending three weeks in space, according to a Lockheed Martin press release. The launch is currently planned for late 2021.

Shortly after, Artemis II will propel humans around the Moon, the first time since the end of the Apollo Program. The pinnacle of this program is Artemis III – landing humans back on the surface of the Moon, a feat not accomplished since 1972. 

Before Artemis can make history and return humans back on the Moon, the transport of Orion was the culmination of a decade of work to make the first test flight of SLS reality. 

“It will blaze a trail that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager, in a NASA fact sheet.

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