NASA’s mega-rocket is about to blast off to the Moon

OK, space fans. The time is almost here. NASA is about to launch its next-generation rocket for the first time and send it beyond the Moon. It’s going to be a crazy time, but honestly, there’s a lot going on here on Earth too – and if you’re anything like me, you might be in the market for a quick refresher on exactly what happens when NASA’s next big thing takes off.

Consider this your SLS cheat sheet as NASA prepares for its big launch on September 3.

What is SLS?

It stands for Space Launch System.

It seems like a very boring name.

He is. But it is also extremely functional, since it refers to a system for launching objects into space.

What kinds of things can SLS throw?

So many things! This version of SLS has four large rocket motors and two solid-state thrusters and can carry approximately 27 metric tons to the general vicinity of the Moon. That’s more than the Space Shuttle could carry to low Earth orbit, but less than the Apollo-era Saturn V rocket could carry to the Moon. Future versions of SLS will be able to carry even more.

The SLS and Orion rolling towards the launch pad
Image: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Wow, how is he going to do that?

It will ignite like a 5.75 million pound firework. These boosters – the two white cylinders on either side of the rocket – are 17 stories tall and filled with a solid rocket fuel called polybutadiene acrylonitrile. They burn through six tons of this fuel every second, according to NASA. In case you’re wondering what it’s all about compared to jumbo jets, NASA has you covered. Each “generates more thrust than 14 four-engined commercial jumbo jets.” The two thrusters will generate 75% of the boom that will launch the rocket and its cargo.

But that’s only part of the rocket power. There’s also the 212-foot-tall Main Stage – the big orange part of the rocket. On launch day, it will hold 537,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and 196,000 of liquid oxygen, which will power the bottom four engines.

All that fuel and engineering translates into a boatload of power. Within 8.5 minutes of launch, SLS and the Orion capsule it carries will be moving at speeds of approximately 17,000 miles per hour.

What is the Orion Capsule?

I say, another one Last name. Thus, SLS will carry a spacecraft called Orion. (In the pictures it’s the white part at the top of the rocket.) It’s not related to the Orion gaming gadget in any way.

Photo by Loren Grush/The Verge

Orion is designed for missions beyond Earth orbit, with potential destinations of the Moon or Mars. It has an extremely shiny appearance that will help it cope with extreme temperatures in space, a next-generation heat shield to deal with re-entry into the atmosphere, and a launch abort system that could put astronauts safe in case something goes wrong during launch. In space, it can support four people on a mission for 21 days.

Orion once flew into space on a test flight in 2014. It has undergone extensive testing since then in preparation for this upcoming flight, which has been delayed many times. many time. (More on those delays later.) In 2020, it looked like there would be a chance of it being delayed again when some engineers discovered a problem with a power component for the spacecraft. Trying to fix it would have taken months, and they have backup systems available, so they’ll be flying the spacecraft as is.

Will there be people inside Orion?

No. There will be three mannequins attached inside, which look more or less terrifying. One is called Commander Moonikin Campos and will wear one of the flight suits that astronauts will wear on future missions. He will be accompanied by the limbless Helga and Zohar, who will carry radiation detectors to determine how much radiation astronauts might be exposed to while traveling to the Moon. Zohar will be wearing a vest that can protect against radiation. Helga won’t. Good luck Helga.

two blue limbless mannequins strapped to seats inside the orion capsule

Helga and Zohar strapped themselves into their seats in Orion. The feet of Commander Moonikin Campos are visible in the upper left.
Image: NASA/Frank Michaux

One of the main reasons there won’t be any astronauts on board is that this whole launch is a giant test flight. This is the first time the SLS has made its big debut in space, and putting people on a rocket before seeing if it can actually work seems like a very bad choice. (NASA very briefly considered doing just that, then decided against it.) Instead, Artemis I will focus on testing how Orion and SLS work and pushing them to their limits before people don’t get on board.

What is Artemis I?

Oh boy, yet another name! Artemis I is the mission that SLS and Orion are pursuing. Its main purpose is to ensure that Orion can work in space and can return astronauts safely to Earth once the mission is complete. As a bonus, it will fly farther from Earth than any spacecraft designed for humans has ever flown before, reaching a distance of 280,000 miles from Earth.

During its mission, it will travel a grand total of about 1.3 million miles, heading for the Moon, then entering orbit around the Moon for several days before returning to Earth. The cards in this mission look like an extremely large and very messy number 8.

A diagram showing the flight path of the Artemis I mission looping around the Earth and the Moon.

The route of Artemis I.
Image: NASA

Are there other Artemis missions?

Yeah! If all goes well with Artemis I, NASA will transition to Artemis II, which will be the first crewed flight of the SLS/Orion combo. It’s also the first crewed mission to the Moon since the Apollo era, but the astronauts on board won’t land on the Moon — they’ll just orbit for a while and then return to Earth.

The ultimate goal is for NASA to land the first woman on the Moon during the Artemis III mission, which is still ongoing. In August, NASA announced several potential landing sites near the Moon’s south pole.

Yeah, that rings a bell. How long has this been in the works?

The Artemis program? Since 2019, when then-Vice President Mike Pence announced that NASA was returning to the Moon and arriving there by 2024.

Fun fact! It gets its name from the fact that in mythology, Artemis is Apollo’s twin sister, and there’s just a ton of nostalgia for the Apollo missions, for better or for worse.

So will they return to the Moon by 2024?

Absolutely not. They’re shooting for 2025 at this point, but that’s still pretty ambitious.

What about the SLS project? I feel like I’ve heard about it for a long time.

You certainly have. Its origins date back to around 2010, when the United States was moving away from the space shuttle and towards other modes of space transportation. Some parts started as a project called Constellation which was canceled because it was way too expensive. Then it was relaunched as SLS in 2010, aiming to launch in 2017. That slipped until 2018 and kept slipping, with the project becoming notoriously delayed and over budget.

For a full story rundown, check out our story here.

But… are they ready to go now?

Well, we all hope so. Dress rehearsal for that launch was cut short in June due to a hydrogen leak, but engineers thought they had ironed out any last-minute tasks for the rocket, and NASA decided it was a launch for its first launch. Attempt on August 29.

Then, on launch day, NASA engineers couldn’t get one of the rocket’s four engines into the correct temperature range, so the launch was ultimately aborted. The space agency is “not ready to give up” and currently hopes to launch Sept. 3 at 2:17 p.m. ET.

What else will be on board?

In addition to Helga, Zohar, and Commander Moonikin Campos, there will be a few other science experiments aboard Artemis I. During the mission, the spacecraft will deploy 10 small satellites called CubeSats. Some will map the ice on the lunar surface, one will deploy a giant solar sail and head towards an asteroid, and one will attempt to land on the Moon. On board there will also be a science experiment that will transport yeast where no yeast has gone before in an effort to study deep space radiation.

A stuffed cartoon sheep reaches for a small model of the Orion capsule.

Shaun the Sheep poses with a model of the Orion capsule
Image: ESA/Aardman

Inside the pod will also be a stuffed sheep named Shaun. Also, Snoopy. Shaun and Snoopy will both serve as weightlessness indicators, floating around Orion once he reaches microgravity.

When is SLS launching?

The launch window opens September 3 at 2:17 p.m. ET. NASA will have a live broadcast on Monday, with launch coverage beginning early Saturday morning.

Update 9/1/2022 10:30 AM ET: This article has been updated with information about the August 29 scrub and the upcoming September 3 launch window.

NASA’s mega-rocket is about to blast off to the Moon

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