NASA Plans Maiden Flight of SLS/Orion for February

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA announced on Friday that the space agency is planning to long-delayed maiden flight of its massive Space Launch System (SLS) during a 15-day window in February. The rocket will send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on flight test around the moon.

The launch window will last from Feb. 12 to Feb. 27, officials said. A flight will last six weeks if it is launched during the first half of the window and four weeks during the second half. If the flight doesn’t take place during that window, another one would open up two weeks later in March.

Officials announced the schedule a day after engineers completed stacking the first SLS/Orion system at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The rocket and spacecraft are 322 feet (98.1 meters) tall.

NASA completed stacking Oct. 21, 2021, of the agency’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft for the Artemis I uncrewed mission around the Moon. The stacking operations were conducted inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credit: NASA)

“With stacking and integration of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft complete, we’re getting closer and closer to embarking on a new era of human deep space exploration,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a press release. “Thanks to the team’s hard work designing, manufacturing, testing, and now completing assembly of NASA’s new rocket and spacecraft, we’re in the home stretch of preparations for the first launch on the Artemis I mission, paving the way to explore the Moon, Mars, and beyond for many years to come.”

The schedule calls for the vehicle to be rolled out to Pad 39B by the end of the year, with a full wet rehearsal of the launch conducted in early January.

The February launch will be the second flight for the Orion spacecraft, which flew an uncrewed mission in Earth orbit in December 2014. Orion was launched aboard an United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The 2014 flight featured only the Orion crew capsule. The launch in February will be the first flight to include the European Service Module (ESM), which is being provided by the European Space Agency (ESA). The module was adapted from the Automated Transfer Vehicle, a now-retired spacecraft that resupplied the International Space Station.

A successful flight would be a major milestone for the SLS and Orion programs, which have suffered years of delays and multi-billion cost overruns. Critics have decried the projects as boondoggles that should have been canceled years ago in favor of commercial alternatives.

If the February flight goes well, NASA plans to launch SLS/Orion with a four-member crew to the moon in 2023. It would be the first human flight beyond low Earth orbit since the Apollo 17 moon landing mission in December 1972.

NASA has plans to land two astronauts at the south pole of the moon in 2024 as part of the Artemis program. The space agency awarded a contract earlier this year to SpaceX to develop the Human Landing System that will take the astronauts to and from the surface.