The first SLS launch remains scheduled for late August

WASHINGTON — Preparations for the first flight of the Space Launch System for an Aug. 29 launch remain on track, NASA officials said Aug. 3.

SLS executives and agency heads said work to prepare the SLS and Orion spacecraft for the Artemis-1 mission at Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) is “on track” to allow for a rollout to the pad on March 18. August and to support a launch 11 days later.

“We’re on the home stretch,” said Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, Artemis 1 launch director at KSC, at a briefing to preview the mission. “We are targeting the August 18 rollout date. This is currently on schedule.” A rollout on that day would allow for an August 29 launch.

Since NASA announced a target launch date of July 20, crews have been working on both SLS and Orion, from completing repairs on the rocket to installing payloads in the Orion capsule. Technicians also powered up Orion for the last time before launch last weekend.

One remaining item to be completed is testing of the missile’s Flight Termination System (FTS) in the “intertank” portion of the core stage. That exam will start next week, she said.

The AGV could complicate launch planning for Artemis 1. At a July 20 briefing, NASA officials said the Eastern Range must be tested 15 days before launch. This, said Cliff Lanham, senior vehicle operations manager for the Exploration Ground Systems program, creates “some challenges” to completing the finishing work on schedule.

Testing also begins a 20-day clock to conduct launch. “We’re struggling with that timing,” he said at the time, to support backup launch opportunities on September 2 and 5. NASA worked with the range to try to address these concerns.

At the August 3 briefing, Blackwell-Thompson said these discussions with the range are ongoing. “We have provided the range with all the performance data,” she said. “The reach has this data. They are currently reviewing it.”

Current plans, she said, would allow for two launches in that 20-day period. “We will continue to validate this data with range and should more days become available we will incorporate this into our peel planning.”

The briefing offered few other new details about the mission, instead providing an overview of the flight. The SLS will send the unmanned Orion spacecraft to the Moon, where the Orion Service Module’s main engine will fire for a “powered flyby” of the Moon, placing it in a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon. Orion will later deorbit and return to Earth, splashing down off the coast of San Diego on October 10, anticipating an August 29 launch.

The mission will test both SLS and Orion ahead of Artemis 2, the first mission with astronauts scheduled for no earlier than 2024. “We’re taking a ‘lean forward’ approach to Artemis 1 because it’s an unmanned test flight,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis 1 mission manager at NASA Headquarters. That means sending Orion to the moon, even if there were problems with the spacecraft, to bring it back, and testing the mission’s main goal of demonstrating that Orion’s heat shield can function at lunar reentry speeds.

“In the interests of crew safety, we will allow errors in Artemis 1 that we would not normally vote for in Artemis 2 on a manned mission,” he said. “We’re trying to mitigate the risk for manned flights, so we’re willing to take a higher risk on an unmanned test flight with Artemis 1 than on subsequent manned flights.”

“That’s why it’s a 42-day mission,” added NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, citing additional tests planned for the spacecraft. “Remember, it’s a test flight.”

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