In order for astronauts to reach the moon, they need a big rocket, and the Space Launch System is that rocket—the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V took NASA astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. The aircraft, awaiting launch on Wednesday, will have a height of 322 feet and will weigh 5.5 million pounds when full of fuel.
It will be able to lift more than 200,000 pounds into low Earth orbit and send nearly 60,000 pounds of payload to the moon. Its cargo for this launch is Orion, a capsule that will be unmanned for this flight but can carry four astronauts.
The rocket, known as the SLS, resembles an extended external tank used by the retired space shuttle, and the side boosters that help it get into space look a lot like the engines the shuttles used.
This is by design: To simplify development of its new lunar rocket, NASA reused much of the 1970s space shuttle technology. The rocket’s center stage is 27.6 feet in diameter like the outer tank of the 1970s shuttle, and it’s covered in the same orange insulation.
The four engines in the core stage are the same as the main engines of the Space Shuttle. The first three Artemis missions actually use engines pulled from old shuttles and refurbished. Since none of the SLS rockets will be used more than once, older NASA shuttle engines will run out after Artemis IV. New engines will be required for Artemis V and later missions.
The side boosters are longer versions of those used on the space shuttle flights. During the shuttle era, similar boosters were recovered and reused by NASA. But for the Space Launch System, which will launch only once a year, the agency decided it would be easier and more economical to allow the boosters to sink into the ocean and use new hardware for each flight.
The SLS second stage, which will propel the Orion capsule on a path to the Moon once it reaches low Earth orbit, is essentially a modification of the one used in another rocket called the Delta IV. A new upgraded second stage will be used for Artemis IV, making the missile more powerful.
Development of the Orion crew capsule began in 2006 as part of Constellation, a pre-lunar program that began under President George W. Bush. Constellation’s costs skyrocketed, and the Obama administration attempted to scrap it entirely in 2010.
However, Congress rebelled against this decision, which led to the resurrection of Orion and the Ares V, the heavy lift rocket that had been planned for Constellation, and a conversion to the Space Launch System.
The Orion capsule is designed for multi-week trips into deep space beyond low-Earth orbit. This means that the vehicle, while larger than the Crew Dragon capsule that ferries astronauts to the International Space Station, has a little less room inside to make room for the more powerful life support systems.
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