When NASA sends the first woman and the next man to the moon, those astronauts won’t just be the first humans to land on the lunar surface since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, they’ll also be riding atop the biggest and most powerful rocket in NASA’s history: the Space Launch System, built by Boeing.
The SLS will stand taller than the Statue of Liberty when it’s ready to take off from the launchpad with the crew of NASA’s Artemis program. And with almost 9 million pounds of thrust, it will be powerful enough to carry a 38-metric-ton payload to the moon.
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According to Matt Duggan, mission management and operation manager for Boeing, the Space Launch System is a key piece of technology that will enable humans to travel farther into space and for longer periods.
“The reason we need larger and larger rockets, as we go further and further into space, is that we want to take more and more stuff with us as we go,” Duggan said in an interview for CNET’s Now What series. “You’re going to pack differently if you’re going on a monthlong trip, than if you’re going on an overnight trip.
“That’s where the SLS comes in. It can carry these huge, huge payloads … and include all the supplies that humans need to live and work in deep space.”
That ability to carry large payloads isn’t just vital for carrying crew and cargo to the moon, but also for future missions to Mars. Unlike previous rockets developed for NASA missions, the SLS will be able to carry entire payloads, preassembled, to deep space so that supplies are ready to go on Mars as humans arrive.
While the team working on the SLS includes veterans who worked on the space shuttle program and the International Space Station (and the design of the SLS itself incorporates parts used on shuttle missions) a lot has changed since those earlier spacecraft were built.
“It’s never been done before quite this way,” said Duggan. “We’re taking advantage of the very best, most modern engineering practices that we have today. And I think that’s a huge advantage we have now over the people who — successfully, of course — but who designed Saturn V. That was a rocket where you had people doing designs on paper, doing calculations by hand, and making parts by hand.
“We can do as much analysis in a single day as they did on their entire program over years. And with computer-aided manufacturing, we can build parts that are so precise, that they’re literally sculpted to be exactly what they need to be.”
That level of precision even goes all the way down to the smallest parts. Duggan says every single part of the rocket, right down to each specific bolt, is tracked individually throughout the build.
“We know everywhere it’s been and every person who’s touched it,” he said. “And we know its history, all the way back almost to when it was metal being mined out of the ground. It’s that level of detail, so that you have the assurance that each part is safe.”
Despite the global pandemic, Duggan says the SLS is still on track for launch. The Boeing and NASA teams are getting ready for a so-called “hot fire test,” when the rocket’s four RS-25 engines will be fired for as long as they would during a real launch.
Then, after a decade of development, the SLS will be ready for Artemis I in 2021. This will be the first time the SLS will launch complete with the (uncrewed) Orion space capsule on top, taking off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a three-week mission around the moon. From there, NASA will prepare for a lunar landing with Artemis II, before taking its first crew to the moon with Artemis III.
Beyond that, Duggan says missions to Mars will be the next exciting challenge on the road ahead.
“When humans landed on the moon, 50 years ago now, that was a defining moment for a lot of people — for a generation, almost. And that was not just a celebration as an individual or as a nation, but it was all the way up to the species. Everyone could get behind that. And I think Mars will be the same thing, that kind of challenge.”
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