The Space Launch System: NASA’s Last Rocket


Eleven years in the making, the most powerful NASA-built rocket since the Apollo program at last stands upright. Framed by the industrial test platform to which it is mounted, the Space Launch System’s core section is a gleaming, apricot-colored column cast into relief by twisting pipes and steel latticework. The rocket is taller than the Statue of Liberty, pedestal and all, and is the cornerstone of NASA’s astronaut ambitions. The launch vehicle is central to the agency’s Artemis program to return humans to the lunar surface, and later, land them on Mars.

On Thursday, NASA will try for a second time to prove that the Space Launch System is ready to take flight, aiming for a continuous “hot fire” of its engines for as long as eight minutes. If the test goes well, the rocket’s next stop would be Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and as early as November, the launchpad. It is expected to lift a capsule called Orion on a path around the moon and back. Its first crewed mission is planned for 2023. That flight will be the first to lift astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit since 1972. Indeed, it will send astronauts farther into space than any human has gone before.

And yet far from being a bold statement about the future of human spaceflight, the Space Launch System rocket represents something else: the past, and the end. This is the last class of rocket that NASA is ever likely to build.

Seeing it launch, though, will actually mean something. While NASA has long desired to return astronauts to deep space, it could not. The agency lacked a vehicle designed, tested and validated as safe to lift humans more than a couple of hundred miles from the ground. If this week’s test succeeds and the rocket later flies, the United States will be able to say that it does.

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