Photo by: Kyle Montgomery – NHS
April 27th around 12:00 PM Edt. at Kennedy Space Center
The much anticipated, long awaited Space Launch System Core booster has finally arrived at the Kennedy Space Center. This first of NASA’s core stages departed the Stennis Space Center near St. Louis, Mississippi several days ago following the successful completion of the Green Run tests of it’s designs and systems. That was the final stop before Cape Canaveral where it will be integrated vertically and stacked with the rest of the rocket for it’s mission “Artemis I” where it will travel un-crewed around the Moon and back to fully test the spacecraft and systems before allowing crew to take part in the journey.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Artemis Program, it is the NASA spaceflight program that will land the next man, and first woman on the surface of our Moon and prepare for the eventual journey to Mars. To do this NASA is building the world’s most powerful rocket which will serve as the backbone of the Artemis program and the nations future deep space exploration missions. This core stage is the largest component of the rocket itself, and the tallest flight component ever built by NASA at 212ft tall and 27.6ft in diameter. On the bottom it holds four RS-25 engines built by Boeing at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. These are the same engines that powered the Space Shuttle and the main components being tested during the Green Run tests which hot fired the engines just like they would during an actual launch. During the first test an automatic shutdown occurred very early on causing the teams to redo the test. On March 18th, 2021 that test ran for the complete eight minutes and was reportedly a flawless test run. From there the team worked to refurbish the stage for launch and removed it from the B-2 test stand on April 19th & 20th where they used specially designed transporters to load and hold the giant stage onto the Pegasus barge.
The NASA Pegasus barge was once used to transport space shuttle fuel tanks (those massive orange tanks strapped to the belly of the orbiters) and was specially modified for it to be able to accommodate the SLS core stages. When the stage was loaded onto the barge it travelled down the Pearl River from Stennis, through the Gulf of Mexico, all the way around the Southern tip of Florida and up the Atlantic coast in order to reach the Kennedy Space Center where it will launch from LC-39B hopefully sometime later this year. As soon as the core stage is offloaded in the Kennedy Space Center turn basin the rocket will roll horizontally inside the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) through the south side and remain in the transfer aisle for several weeks where technicians will get to work on the rocket’s thermal protection system foam and begin installing pyrotechnic charges on the core stage’s range safety destruct or self abort system. Once these tasks are completed it will be raised by crane into High Bay 3 where it will be carefully stacked between the two 177ft tall solid rocket boosters.
Then comes the stacking of the upper stage, which consists of the second stage of a ULA (United Launch Alliance) Delta IV Heavy and the adapter that will support the Orion spacecraft. Before the actual Orion capsule is stacked however the teams will place a mass model of it atop the launch vehicle for structural resonance testing. Only once that is complete will teams move the real Orion spacecraft on top completing the first SLS rocket. Once complete the entire system will stand 322ft tall with the four RS-25 engines and twin solid rocket boosters providing 8.8 million pounds of thrust which can send about 59,500 pounds of mass to the Moon.
As of now NASA plans to roll the SLS out of the VAB for the first time as soon as August of this year to travel to pad 39B for countdown rehearsals and practice for when it’s actually go time.