It’s Finally Here! -- Assembly of NASA’s First SLS (Saturn V on Steroids) Begins at Kennedy Space Center
NASA and contractor Jacobs lower the Space Launch System (SLS) core stage – the largest part of the rocket – onto the mobile launcher, in between the twin solid rocket boosters, inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 12, 2021. The 188,000-pound core stage, with its four RS-25 engines, will provide more than 2 million pounds of thrust during launch and ascent and, coupled with the boosters, will provide more than 8.8 million pounds of thrust to send the Artemis I mission to space. Under the Artemis program, NASA will establish a sustainable presence on the lunar surface in preparation for human missions to Mars. NASA has designed the Space Launch System as the foundation for a generation of human exploration missions to deep space, including missions to the Moon and Mars. SLS will leave low-Earth orbit and send the Orion spacecraft, its astronaut crew, and cargo to deep space. To do this, SLS has to have enough power to perform a maneuver known as trans-lunar injection, or TLI. This maneuver accelerates the spacecraft from its orbit around Earth onto a trajectory toward the Moon. The ability to send more mass to the Moon on a single mission makes exploration simpler and safer. (Image Credit: NASA, Cory Huston)
It’s Finally Here! -- Assembly of NASA’s First SLS (Saturn V on Steroids) Begins at Kennedy Space Center
The core stage of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for NASA’s Artemis I mission has been placed on the mobile launcher in between the twin solid rocket boosters inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Artemis I will be an uncrewed test of the Orion spacecraft and SLS rocket as an integrated system ahead of crewed flights to the Moon. The boosters attach at the engine and intertank sections of the core stage. Serving as the backbone of the rocket, the core stage supports the weight of the payload, upper stage, and crew vehicle, as well as carrying the thrust of its four engines and two five-segment solid rocket boosters. After the core stage arrived by barge on April 27,2021, engineers with Exploration Ground Systems and contractor Jacobs brought the core stage into the VAB for processing work and then lifted it into place with one of the five overhead cranes in the facility.
Then the crews stacked the launch vehicle stage adapter atop the core stage on June 22, 2021 in preparation for the first integrated flight test of SLS and NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The 30-foot-tall, cone-shaped piece of hardware connects the SLS rocket’s upper and lower propulsion stages. The adapter also houses the RL10 engine that powers the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage that will send Orion on a precise trajectory to the Moon.
NASA’s Space Launch System is a super-heavy-lift launch vehicle that provides the foundation for human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit. With its unprecedented power and capabilities, SLS can send astronauts and cargo to the Moon on a single mission.
Offering more payload mass, volume capability, and energy, SLS is designed to be flexible and evolvable and will open new possibilities for payloads, including robotic scientific missions to places like the Moon, Mars, and other deep space destinations.
The Power to Explore Beyond Earth’s Orbit
To fulfill America’s future needs for deep space missions, SLS will evolve into increasingly more powerful configurations. SLS is designed for deep space missions and will send Orion or other cargo to the Moon, which is nearly 1000 times farther than where the space station resides in low-Earth orbit. The rocket will provide the power to help Orion reach a speed of 24,500 miles per hour; the speed needed to send it to the Moon.
There are three basic Configurations of SLS named Block 1, Block 1B, and Block 2. Each of these comes in two versions: Crew and Cargo, for a total of six versions. Every SLS configuration uses the core stage with four RS-25 engines.
The first SLS vehicle, called Block 1, can send more than 27 metric tons or 59,500 pounds (lbs.) to orbits beyond the Moon. It will be powered by twin five-segment solid rocket boosters and four RS-25 liquid propellant engines. After reaching space, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) sends Orion on to the Moon. The first three Artemis missions will use a Block 1 rocket with an ICPS.
Block 1B crew vehicle, will use a new, more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) to enable more ambitious missions. The Block 1B vehicle can, in a single launch, carry the Orion crew vehicle along with large cargos for exploration systems needed to support a sustained presence on the Moon. The Block 1B crew vehicle can send 38 tons (83,700 lbs.) to deep space including Orion and its crew. Launching with cargo only, SLS has a large volume payload fairing to send larger exploration systems to the Moon and Mars or for science spacecraft on solar system exploration missions.
The next SLS configuration, Block 2, will provide 9.5 million lbs. of thrust and will be the workhorse vehicle for sending cargo to the Moon, Mars, and other deep space destinations. SLS Block 2 will be designed to lift more than 46 tons (101,400 lbs.) to deep space. An evolvable design provides NASA with a rocket able to pioneer new human spaceflight missions.
Launch System Missions
Artemis I, the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion, uses the Block 1 configuration, which stands 322 feet, taller than the Statue of Liberty, and weighs 5.75 million lbs. SLS will produce 8.8 million lbs. of maximum thrust, 15 percent more thrust than the Saturn V rocket. For Artemis I, Block 1 will launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to an orbit 40,000 miles beyond the Moon, or 280,000 miles from Earth. This mission will demonstrate the integrated system performance of SLS, Orion, and Exploration Ground Systems prior to a crewed flight. The Artemis II mission will send astronauts on a flight to orbit the Moon. These missions pave the way for landing astronauts on the Moon in 2024, during the Artemis III mission.
Building the Rocket
NASA is building the rockets needed for several missions. To reduce cost and development time, NASA is using proven hardware from the space shuttle and other exploration programs while making use of cutting-edge tooling and manufacturing technology. Some parts of the rocket are new and other parts have been upgraded with modern features that meet the needs of deep space missions, which require higher launch vehicle performance levels.
The Boeing Company, in Huntsville, Alabama, builds the SLS core stages, including the avionics that controls the vehicle during flight. Towering more than 200 feet with a diameter of 27.6 feet, the core stage stores 730,000 gallons of super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that will fuel the RS-25 engines.
Core stages are built at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans using state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment, including a friction stir welding tool that is the largest of its kind in the world. Now that the core stage for Artemis I is complete, Boeing has started building structures for Artemis II and III. The SLS avionics computer software is being developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.
Propulsion for the SLS core stage will be provided by four RS-25 engines. Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California, is upgrading an inventory of 16 RS-25 shuttle engines to SLS performance requirements, including a new engine controller, nozzle insulation, and required
operation at 512,000 lbs. of thrust. During the flight, the four engines provide around 2 million lbs. of thrust.
The engines for Artemis I have been built, tested, and attached to the core stage. The stage has undergone successful testing at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The Pegasus barge delivered the core stage to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida where it has now been attached to the twin solid rocket boosters inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
Aerojet Rocketdyne has finished testing new controllers and is assembling engines for the next four missions. They have restarted production of new engines and are doing development testing of new, advanced components to make the engines more affordable for future missions.
Two shuttle-derived solid rocket boosters will power the initial flights of the SLS. To provide the additional power needed for the rocket, the prime contractor for the boosters, Northrop Grumman, of Redondo Beach, California, has modified the original shuttle’s configuration of four propellant segments to a five-segment version. The design includes new avionics, propellant design, and case insulation, and eliminates the recovery parachutes.
Northrop Grumman has delivered the 10 booster segments for Artemis I to Kennedy Space Center, has cast all booster segments for Artemis II at their Utah facility, and has started casting booster segments for Artemis III. Trains transport booster segments from Utah to Kennedy Space Center where they are stacked with other space shuttle booster components. The boosters’ avionics systems are being tested at Kennedy and Marshall.
Spacecraft and Payload Adapter, Fairings, and Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage
The Orion stage adapter will connect Orion to the ICPS on the SLS Block 1 vehicle and is the place where small satellites can ride to space. The Orion stage adapter has been delivered to Kennedy for the first launch. Teledyne Brown Engineering of Huntsville has built the launch vehicle stage adapter that will connect SLS’s core stage to the upper part of the rocket.
The initial capability to propel Orion out of Earth’s orbit for Block 1 will come from the ICPS, based on the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage used successfully on United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV family of rockets.
It uses one RL10 engine made by Aerojet Rockedyne. The engine is powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, and generates 24,750 lbs. of thrust. This stage has been delivered to Kennedy and is ready for integration before the Artemis I launch.
Exploration Upper Stage
The Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) is powered by four RL10 engines that produce almost four times more thrust than the one RL10 engine that powers the ICPS. The 97,000 lbs. of thrust will allow more than 38 tons (83,700 lbs.) for Block 1B crew and more than 42 tons (92,500 lbs.) for Block 1B cargo to be sent to the Moon.
With the EUS, NASA can use either a Block 1B crew configuration to send Orion, astronauts, and payloads to deep space or use a Block 1B cargo configuration to send large cargoes to the Moon, Mars, or more distant destinations.
Boeing is under contract to build the EUS at the Michoud Assembly Facility and has completed the preliminary design review.
Aerojet Rocketdyne is under contract to produce the RL10 engines for the EUS and has completed manufacturing and testing of several engines.
The SLS Team
SLS is America’s rocket with more than 1000 companies from across the U.S. and at every NASA center supporting the development of the world’s most powerful rocket. The SLS Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, works closely with the Orion Program managed by NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the Exploration Ground Systems group managed at the Kennedy Space Center. All three programs are managed by the Exploration Systems Development Division within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC.
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