The NASA Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket achieved all of its goals during its first-ever launch two weeks ago, the agency said.
That November 16 launch marked the start of NASA’s highly anticipated Artemis 1 mission, sending the uncrewed Orion capsule on a nearly 26-day journey to and from the moon. During launch, the SLS performed exactly as planned, and further analysis confirms these initial impressions, NASA officials said Wednesday (November 30).
“The first launch of the Space Launch System rocket was simply mesmerizing,” said Artemis mission leader Mike Sarafin. (will open in a new tab).
“While our mission with Orion is still ongoing and we continue to learn from our flight, the rocket systems performed as intended and as expected in each case,” he added.
Pictured: Amazing views of the debut of NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar rocket
The SLS, a key piece of equipment for NASA’s Artemis lunar program, is now the most powerful rocket ever successfully launched. The huge rocket took on the mantle of the iconic Saturn V that sent Apollo astronauts to the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
During launch on November 16, the SLS generated 8.8 million pounds of thrust. Approximately 7 million people benefited thanks to two solid propellant boosters (SRBs) that were attached to the SLS main stage.
The SRBs worked exactly as planned; Mission team members have identified no problems with them or any of their subsystems, NASA officials said in a statement released Wednesday.
The SLS main stage, powered by four RS-25 engines left over from the space shuttle era, also lived up to expectations. The PC-25s continued to fire for almost six minutes after the SRBs were dropped, eventually bringing Orion about 3 miles (4.8 km) from its target Earth orbit, on a very elliptical trajectory that brought the capsule closer to 18 miles (29 miles). km) to our planet and at a distance of up to 1,120 miles (1,800 km), NASA officials said.
The upper stage of the SLS, which is powered by a single RL-10 engine, took control, performing one orbital lift and then a record-breaking 18-minute firing that sent Orion on its way to the moon. The upper stage also did its job well.
“Productivity decreased by less than 0.3% in all cases,” Sarafin said.
Team members are also excited about the Orion’s performance, but there’s still a lot of work to be done on the capsule. Orion is due to leave lunar orbit Thursday afternoon (December 1) and return to Earth 10 days later, splashdown in the Pacific Ocean to complete the Artemis 1 mission.
NASA engineers and mission planners will no doubt study the data for months afterward to make sure both Orion and SLS are ready to carry people. The duo should do just that on Artemis 2, which will send astronauts around the moon in 2024 if all goes according to plan.
Early returns give reason to be optimistic that NASA will indeed be able to achieve this launch goal.
“With this amazing lunar rocket, we have laid the foundation for Artemis and our long-term presence on the Moon,” John Honeycutt, SLS program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said in the same statement. “The work of the rocket and the team that accompanied its first flight was simply outstanding.”
Mike Wall is the author of Out There (will open in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrations by Carl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (will open in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (will open in a new tab) or facebook (will open in a new tab).