NASA unveils its moon rocket

First of the agency’s Space Launch System rockets rolls toward pad for a “wet dress rehearsal” with its Orion capsule ahead of the program’s inaugural launch

This story has been updated

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s first Space Launch System rocket rolled out from the Vehicle Assembly Building today on a giant crawler-transporter vehicle shortly after 6 p.m. Eastern U.S. time. After a short pause to reconfigure, the rocket will begin its journey to Launch Complex 39B and a dress rehearsal for the design’s first launch at a date yet to be selected by NASA.

The moderator of NASA’s livestream said some 10,000 people came to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for the event. Among them were the family members of some of the NASA employees who helped build the rocket. They stood near the VAB entrance behind a rope, many dressed in green to mark St. Patrick’s Day.

The rollout was part “iconic moment,” as one NASA manager dubbed it, for the thousands of workers across the 50 American states who built the expendable moon rocket and ground equipment over the last decade, and part critical step toward returning to the moon and righting a troubled rocket program that NASA has spent $22 billion on so far.

For one of the astronauts in the running to receive flight assignments for the future moon missions, it was also a big step toward making the first crewed flight, now scheduled for 2024, a reality.

“I’ve seen a lot of PowerPoint slides and read a lot of briefings about this,” NASA astronaut Victor Glover said on the livestream, “but to see it all stacked on the Mobile Launcher, on the crawler-transporter, it just makes it so much more real.”

The Statue of Liberty-height rocket will cruise at just over a kilometer per hour and need about 11 hours to complete the journey to pad 39B on a sandy strip where Saturn V rockets and later space shuttles once took off and ascended over the Atlantic Ocean. NASA and its contractors will spend about two weeks connecting power and data lines and making other preparations for the “wet dress rehearsal” ahead of the Artemis 1 launch, the design’s first flight and one that aims to send an uncrewed Orion capsule on its way around the moon and back for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

On the morning of April 3, the rocket will be loaded with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, and the countdown will be taken down to just under 10 seconds. Then NASA will roll SLS back to the VAB and assess the results of the rehearsal. 

“That’s the point where I think we’ll be in good position as an agency to set a launch date,” said  NASA’s Tom Whitmeyer, associate administrator for exploration systems development, in a press briefing before the rollout.

For NASA, however, today was not about the timeline. Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, NASA’s first female launch director, said she advised her team this week to pause and “appreciate this moment, because being first doesn’t come along very often in your career.”

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NASA unveils its moon rocket