NASA progressing on next-generation rocket, but will it make 2021 launch?

NASA has been working on a new launch vehicle for its missions since 2011, aiming to create a next-generation rocket that can carry astronauts to the moon and eventually even to Mars. Now, it has completed work on a key part of the Space Launch System (SLS), the Artemis I launch vehicle stage adapter, which will connect the rocket’s core stage and the propulsion stage.

The adapter was build at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and has now been transported to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to be integrated to other rocket parts.

“The launch vehicle stage adapter for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket was the final piece of Artemis I rocket hardware built exclusively at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center,” Marshall Director Jody Singer said in a statement. “This milestone comes as Marshall teams just completed the structural test campaign of the SLS rocket that confirmed the rocket’s structural design is ready for Artemis missions to the Moon.”

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket’s launch vehicle stage adapter is loaded on the Pegasus barge
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket’s launch vehicle stage adapter is loaded on the Pegasus barge at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, July 17. The launch vehicle stage adapter, which connects the rocket’s 212-foot-tall core stage to the upper stage of the rocket, will be shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for Artemis I launch preparations. NASA/Fred Deaton

“The launch vehicle stage adapter is welded together as two separate cones that are then stacked on top of each other,” Keith Higginbotham, the launch vehicle stage adapter hardware manager, explained in the statement. “Marshall’s expertise with an innovative process called friction stir welding and the center’s large robotic weld tools made it possible to build some pieces of the rocket at Marshall while the core stage was built at the same time by Boeing at Michoud.”

The Space Launch System project has come under fire for running behind schedule and over budget. However, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine maintains confidence that the mission can achieve its November 2021 launch date, with some caveats.

As reported by Ars Technica, Bridenstine said in a webinar this week that the mission has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, but he is hopeful that the work from home precautions taken by NASA will allow the team to meet its launch deadline.

“I think we’re okay for now, but if we don’t get a grip on the coronavirus pandemic in the near future, it’s going to be difficult,” he said. “If the coronavirus pandemic is not an issue, then I’m very confident in November 2021.”

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