NASA shows off finished SLS moon rocket, Webb telescope

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center Friday. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

Two of NASA’s flagship missions finally nearing launch, representing more than $50 billion in U.S. government investment over multiple decades, were displayed to news media Friday at spaceports in Florida and French Guiana.

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, reporters and photographers were granted access to the Vehicle Assembly Building Friday to view the first fully stacked Space Launch System rocket, a towering 322-foot-tall (98-meter) launcher designed to propel astronaut crews toward the moon for the first time since 1972.

More than 2,400 miles (3,900 kilometers) to the southeast, media representatives toured the European-run Guiana Space Center on the northern coastline of South America. Technicians at the spaceport near Kourou, French Guiana, are readying the James Webb Space Telescope for blastoff on an Ariane 5 rocket.

The Space Launch System, with its Orion crew capsule payload, is scheduled for launch as soon as Feb. 12 from Florida’s Space Coast on an unpiloted test flight around the moon. The launch will be the first mission for NASA’s Artemis program, an initiative to return astronauts to the surface of the moon later this decade.

The SLS test flight is a milestone in a 10-year development that started in 2011, when Congress ordered NASA to design and build a gigantic rocket using technology left over from the agency’s retired fleet of space shuttles. NASA awarded Lockheed Martin the contract to develop the Orion spacecraft in 2006 under the umbrella of the agency’s Constellation moon program, which was canceled in 2010.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft atop the Space Launch System rocket Friday. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

NASA kept the Orion program alive through two major restructurings of the agency’s deep space exploration efforts, first during the Obama administration, when Congress and the White House agreed to pivot NASA’s focus to a human mission to Mars, with an interim crewed expedition to an asteroid.

The Trump administration shifted NASA’s exploration program back to the moon. NASA dubbed the moon program Artemis, naming it for the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.

Through it all, the Orion program survived. NASA’s inspector general reported earlier this year that the agency has spent $12.8 billion developing the Orion spacecraft since 2012, plus an additional $6.3 billion committed to the program in the prior decade under the Constellation program.

The Artemis 1 mission will be the second spaceflight of an Orion capsule, and the first mission to fly an Orion spaceship to the moon. It’s the first flight of the Orion spacecraft’s European-built service module, which provides electricity and propulsion for the capsule in deep space.

NASA’s inspector general said in April that the agency has budgeted $18.8 billion for the SLS program since 2012. Another $4.8 billion in the same period went toward readying Kennedy Space Center’s ground infrastructure for SLS and Orion missions.

If the Artemis 1 test flight goes well, NASA hopes to launch the Artemis 2 mission no earlier than late 2023. That mission, using the second SLS rocket, will carry three NASA astronauts and a Canadian astronaut on a trajectory around the far side of the moon and back to Earth, reaching a distance from Earth farther than any person has flown before.

The James Webb Space Telescope inside a clean room Friday at the Guiana Space Center. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

The James Webb Space Telescope, finally complete after more than 20 years of work, is awaiting launch from a facility cut from the Amazon jungle of South America.

The observatory is scheduled to ride an Ariane 5 rocket into space Dec. 18, heading for an orbit around the L2 Lagrange point nearly a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.

Webb is folded up in launch configuration to fit inside the payload envelope of its Ariane 5 rocket. The observatory stands about 34.4 feet (10.5 meters) tall, and will weigh nearly 14,000 pounds (about 6,200 kilograms) fully fueled for liftoff.

The mission has cost more than $10 billion, including contributions from NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

NASA is bearing the bulk of the cost at around $9.7 billion, including development expenses and funding commitments for five years of operations. ESA is providing instrument hardware and the launch vehicle for Webb, and Canada built the fine guidance sensor and a spectrograph for the observatory.

After launch, the observatory will begin a make-or-break sequence of deployments to extend its solar array, high-gain antenna, and mirror segments. Webb also has a five-layer sunshield to shade its mirrors, detectors and science instruments, keeping the telescope colder than minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 223 degrees Celsius.

Made of aluminum-coated Kapton, each sunshield layer is as thin as a human hair. The sunshade will expand to the size of a tennis court once Webb is in space.

Credit: A view of the primary mirror segments on the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

The observatory’s infrared instruments will peer into the oldest, most distant reaches of the universe to study some of the first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang more than 13.5 billion years ago.

Astronomers will also use Webb to look at how galaxies form and evolve, to study the birth of stars, and to learn more about the atmospheres of planets that may be hospitable for life outside our solar system.

Webb will be the largest space telescope ever launched, with a primary mirror made of 18 gold-coated beryllium segments stretching to a diameter of 21.3 feet (6.5 meters) once it opens a couple of weeks after blastoff. That’s nearly three times the width of Hubble’s monolithic primary mirror.

A decade ago, the Obama administration and Congress outlined three priorities for NASA in the 2010s: Debut new commercial crew and cargo transportation to help utilize the International Space Station, develop the SLS and Orion spacecraft, and complete construction of Webb.

At the time, NASA aimed to launch the first commercial crew flight to the space station in 2017. The space agency said the first SLS/Orion test flight was slated for 2017, and Webb’s launch was targeted for 2018.

SpaceX launched its first astronaut flight to the space station on May 30, 2020, aboard the company’s privately-owned Crew Dragon spacecraft, ending a nearly nine-year gap in U.S. orbital human spaceflight capability since the last shuttle launch in 2011.

During the nine-year gap, NASA purchased rides for astronauts to the space station on Russian Soyuz crew ferry ships.

NASA selected SpaceX and Boeing for commercial crew contracts in 2014, and spent about $5 billion in federal funds to help pay for development of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner spaceship.

Both programs faced delays, but the commercial crew contracts were set up as fixed price agreements, meaning the contractor was responsible for paying for cost overruns. That’s not the case in NASA’s contracts for Webb, SLS, and Orion.

The core stage of NASA’s SLS moon rocket is covered in orange foam skin to insulate propellant tanks that will hold super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The nose cones of the rocket’s two side-mounted solid-fueled boosters — derived from the boosters used on the space shuttle — are also visible. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has not yet launched with astronauts on-board, and still needs to accomplish a successful unpiloted demo mission to the space station before NASA approves the capsule to carry a crew.

While Webb should be beaming science data back to Earth within six months of launch, there will still be work for NASA and its contractors to finish before officials can declare development complete on the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft.

The Orion capsule flying on the Artemis 1 mission won’t be outfitted with all of the astronaut cockpit displays or fully functional life support systems. NASA will introduce those on the Artemis 2 mission.

The first three SLS flights will launch with an interim cryogenic upper stage derived from the second stage of United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4-Heavy rocket.

NASA and Boeing, prime contractor for the SLS core and upper stages, are still early in a multibillion-dollar development of a large Exploration Upper Stage, which would enhance the rocket’s cargo carrying capability for lunar missions.

The new upper stage will be powered by four Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engines, instead of the single RL10 engine mounted to the interim cryogenic stage.

But the first SLS rocket with the exploration stage, called the SLS Block 1B variant, will not launch before 2026, according a report last year released by NASA’s internal watchdog.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.