An Inside Look at NASA's Most Powerful Rocket Ever - the Space Launch System
Sunday, June 4, 2023
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The Space Launch System, with the Orion spacecraft sitting on top, has a central role in the Artemis I mission to orbit the moon. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s newest rocket is set to lift off Monday morning, kicking off a new era of lunar exploration for the U.S. The Artemis I mission is an uncrewed practice run that will launch NASA’s most powerful rocket—called the Space Launch System, or SLS—with the Orion spacecraft sitting on top. Orion is designed to withstand the harsh environment of space.


Artemis Moon Space Launch System


This is a story about two gods and an American space agency that has decided to use both of them to sell a very similar mission. The words “lunar landing” conjure images of the past for most Americans: crew cuts; horn-rimmed glasses; analogue instruments; white, masculine faces. Apollo was an achievement of the century, but a century in which women were not often encouraged to wear scientific laurels.



Almost seventy years later, NASA wants to return to the moon, but it is a very different time with different power brokers and a different electorate. When leaders at NASA went to Congress to make the pitch, this time they sold an image with a distinctly female face and a goddess’s name to go with it.


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In May 2019, NASA announced the Artemis program, tasked with returning man to the moon and bringing woman this time as well. Artemis, Greek goddess of the moon and more, is also twin sister to the god Apollo, for whom the original moon missions were named. With budget shortfalls and the distinct uncertainty of the success of the program, at least as currently planned, the space agency’s dynamic webpage and colorful cell phone wallpapers are all the more interesting in that they seem aimed at casting a net designed to capture the attention of American women. All stress what is history-making about the program, and may help it garner additional support: the first woman stepping foot on the moon.



The Artemis missions will build a community on the Moon, driving a new lunar economy and inspiring a new generation. Narrator Drew Barrymore and NASA team members explain why returning to the Moon is the natural next step in human exploration, and how the lessons learned from Artemis will pave the way to Mars and beyond. As NASA prepares to launch the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket on the uncrewed Artemis I mission around the Moon, we’ve already begun to take the next step.


woman image on Artemis


NASA-produced art representing woman on the moon from the Artemis program marketing campaign: “Her features are abstract enough that all women can see themselves in her.”  Comparisons of art and insignias from Artemis to Apollo show NASA’s desire to recall its great, 20th-century accomplishment.


The Sisters of Artemis 1


All of this had me wondering how much has changed in American (and NASA’s) culture that NASA would choose Artemis, goddess of the moon, in 2019 when it did not do so in 1960s. Artemis’s brother Apollo, associated with the sun, light, prophecy and arts claimed that prize. How much had changed in American culture and gender politics for NASA to choose the first feminine name for a major manned space mission?


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Margaret A. Weitekamp, historian and curator at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, said that while NASA does not have complete gender equality, women have worked there in important roles for the last fifty years. She sees Artemis, both the mission and the selling of the mission, as the natural conclusion of this history. “The attempt to foreground an appeal to women or to having an explicitly mixed gender group going to the moon, I think is a reflection of changes that have been under way at NASA since the seventies. You have a few generations [at NASA] that are used to working with women in all of the various fields.” Weitekamp even said that she has heard rumors that women and women of color were on the Biden Administration's short list for NASA’s next top administrator.


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The launch is expected to send Orion toward the moon, where it will enter a lunar orbit for up to 19 days before returning to Earth in October, about six weeks after liftoff.  A successful mission would help set the stage for a similar flight, planned for no earlier than 2025, that would aim to deliver astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.   Here is what makes the ArtemisI mission specia!


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NASA’s Artemis I mission is a test run for the agency’s most powerful rocket ever, the SLS.Standing at 322 feet, the SLS rocket is taller than the Space Shuttle and just a bit shorter than the Saturn V rocket, which sent astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969.  The SLS stands more than 30 stories tall, or the height of Big Ben in London.  More powerful than the rockets used for previous space missions, the SLS produces 8.8 million pounds of thrust compared with the Saturn V’s 7.6 million pounds. The SLS boosters will burn for the first two minutes of the launch and generate 75% of the rocket’s initial thrust before being jettisoned.  The rocket's core stage, which holds the fuel for the rockets, is the largest ever built by NASA, at 212 feet long. It holds tanks of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for a combined 2.3 million pounds of fuel.  


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Four RS-25 rocket engines attached to the bottom of the core stage are the same as those used in Space Shuttle missions that traveled to low-Earth orbit. They provide 2 million pounds of thrust and will burn for 8 minutes and 30 seconds.  The launch abort system will be used in future missions in case of an emergency while on the launch pad or during the takeoff phase of the launch. Three rocket motors can take the crew module from 0 to 405 mph in two seconds to propel any crew away from the rocket if needed.


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Orion’s service module, built in Europe, provides the spacecraft with water, air and thermal control—and will guide it around the moon and back. Solar panels power the spacecraft’s main engine, eight auxiliary engines and 24 control thrusters.  While the Artemis I mission won't transport any people, Orion’s crew module will have room for up to four astronauts in future missions. During the upcoming mission, the module will enter into a lunar orbit before heading back to Earth.   


Space Travelers sitting in ship 


When Orion returns, a heat shield will help protect the crew module as it reenters Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of around 25,000 miles an hour. The shield can withstand temperatures up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A series of parachutes will guide the module to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.  



NASA has said the SLS rocket is the only existing vehicle capable of blasting Orion, astronauts and cargo to low-Earth orbit—where the spacecraft can continue toward the moon—in a single launch.


Man on the Moon


Humans have not set foot on the moon since 1972. Take a look at NASA’s Artemis I mission, a major step to one day getting astronauts back there. If successful, the Artemis I mission will help demonstrate whether Orion, its heat shield and other systems can eventually safely transport astronauts to the moon and back. It will also test the SLS rocket as well as systems that support launch and re-entry.



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Spectators Waiting for the Launch of Artimesis 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida