NASA hits key Space Launch System milestone for future Moon missions

NASA has announced that its Space Launch System project has reached a 'significant milestone' in the effort to return humans to the Moon. The space agency and Boeing, one of the private companies it tapped as a contractor, have assembled four-fifths of the huge core stage that is key to launching the SLS and related Orion spacecraft. The success brings NASA closer to its Artemis-1 lunar mission.

NASA is working double time under the recent mandate to return humans to the Moon by 2024. That next adventure in human spaceflight will happen under the Artemis program, which is anticipated to include one male and one female astronaut who will be sent to the lunar destination by the 2024 deadline. That will itself be a step in NASA's goal to establish a persistent human presence on the Moon by 2028.

Artemis-1 was formerly called the Exploration Mission-1; it will represent the first integrated flight test of the Orion spacecraft, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and the upgraded Exploration Ground Systems at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. In an announcement on Monday, NASA said the first large and complex core stage for the SLS rocket was successfully manufactured. SLS program manager John Honeycutt explained:

This milestone brings the Space Launch System closer to launching the first Artemis mission. The SLS rocket team is laser focused on building the rocket not only for the first flight but also rockets for the second and third Artemis missions that will send astronauts to the Moon.

According to NASA, at this point in its configuration, the stage measures about 190ft in length and is the single largest rocket stage the space agency has built since Saturn V stages. NASA says its experts had to change their core stage assembly plan in order to meet the 2024 deadline — it now mates the individual structures horizontally, whereas before it would have happened vertically.

If everything goes according to plan, the rocket will have its maiden launch next year.