Boeing teams are moving quickly through production and integration of the Space Launch System core stages, getting ready to ship test hardware while manufacturing the structures that will fly to the moon and back again in 2018– after a 45-year hiatus in low Earth orbit. Simultaneously, Boeing and NASA crews are building out the avionics ring that will launch and guide the rocket system. Visitors to NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility say it feels like the days of the Apollo program, when big rockets were built for moon missions here. This time, the hardware is for missions to Mars.
The backbone of the SLS vehicle, the 212-foot long core stage is comprised of the fuel tanks, engine section, intertank and forward skirt, and connects the 8 million pounds of thrust necessary to lift crew and cargo into lunar transfer orbit, and then Mars transfer orbit. The 2018 flight test will carry the integrated uncrewed Orion capsule on a three week journey around the moon in an inaugural test to ensure flight safety for follow-on crewed missions.
Qualification versions of the hardware will undergo testing in 2017 at Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Al., and the flight hardware, integrated with four RS-25 engines, will head to Stennis Spaceflight Center in Bay St.Louis, MS, for testing on the massive, newly refurbished B2 test stands, where the Saturn V was tested decades earlier. Its final trip will be to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, to be integrated with the Orion capsule for its first flight.