With final Artemis rocket part’s arrival at KSC, it’s time to put it all together

After assembly and testing, Artemis-1 could launch in late 2021

The final piece of NASA’s Artemis moon rocket, the Space Launch System, was offloaded into the historic Kennedy Space Center Vehicle Assembly Building Thursday much to the excitement of the teams of people who have worked for over a decade for the moment the rocket can be assembled inside the hangar.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – The final piece of NASA’s Artemis moon rocket, the Space Launch System, was offloaded into the historic Kennedy Space Center Vehicle Assembly Building Thursday much to the excitement of the teams of people who have worked for over a decade for the moment the rocket can be assembled inside the hangar.

The 212-foot core stage of the SLS rocket traveled via NASA’s massive Pegasus barge from the Gulf Coast. It’s the last piece of hardware to complete the rocket before NASA launches it from launchpad 39B, possibly by the end of the year. That flight, known as Artemis-1, will send NASA’s Orion spacecraft zipping around the moon and back on the first test flight without astronauts, proving NASA’s monster rocket is ready to return humans to the moon for the first time in 50 years.

Artemis-1 Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson could hardly put into words how thrilling it was to see the final piece arrive at Kennedy Space Center. She said it’s a mix of pride for her team, country and excitement for what’s to come but also a little bit of nerves.

“We’re excited to get it integrated with the rest of the vehicle. The boosters are stacked in high bay waiting. The Orion spacecraft is over in the multipurpose processing facility, getting some of its testing operations and servicing operations done, so it feels really real and really close,” Blackwell-Thompson said of the upcoming launch she will oversee as launch director.

Artemis-1 Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson looking out at the SLS core stage being offloaded from the Pegasus barge at Kennedy Space Center on April 29, 2021. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG) (WKMG 2021)

Blackwell-Thompson was walking over from the Launch Control Center as the core stage unloading process was just beginning Thursday before sunrise and looked up at the moon.

“I could look to my right and I could see the moon and I could turn to the left and I could see the Pegasus barge knowing that the core stage is right here at the Turn Basin, and in just a couple of hours, we’re gonna have this, this amazing stage over in the VAB,” she said. “And in a few months from now we’re going to be ready to roll it to the pad for wet dress ,and that connection wasn’t lost on me that as we prepare to return to the moon, that this is a key piece of the hardware that’s going to take us there.”

The Artemis-1 core stage slowing emerges from NASA's Pegasus barge on April 29, 2021. The core will be moved into the VAB where it will be stacked with the rest of the Artemis rocket. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG) (Copyright 2020 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

The core stage, built by Boeing, provides the propulsion with four RS-25 engines to get the rocket off the pad.

Parts of the massive core stage are coming full circle in their spaceflight journey, with the four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines having all flown before on space shuttle missions. One flew on John Glenn’s last spaceflight, another on a shuttle Hubble Space Telescope repair mission and two of the engines flew on the final space shuttle mission in 2011. They were refurbished and will now help propel NASA’s new program to the moon.

Core stage design engineer Kristine Ramos, of Boeing, has been part of the development, build and testing for the core stage of the Space Launch System. She watched eagerly as years of work emerged from the Pegasus barge.

Ramos been with the SLS part since it was just an idea. First, in Huntsville, Alabama, for the design, then down at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans where it began being assembled.

Boeing core stage design engineer Kristine Ramos in front of the SLS core stage as its being offloaded from NASA's Pegasus barge at Kennedy Space Center on April 29, 2021. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG) (WKMG 2021)

“We actually took those designs and actually started building it when he was completely empty. So I was there crawling in the engine section when there was absolutely nothing inside,” she said.

Most recently she was there for the Green Run test in Mississippi when all four engines were fired up for eight minutes, about the time it will take to get the rocket where it needs to go on launch day.

The Artemis-1 core stage slowing emerges from NASA's Pegasus barge on April 29, 2021. The core will be moved into the VAB where it will be stacked with the rest of the Artemis rocket. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG) (Copyright 2020 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Boeing continues to support the core stage all the way until launch. After the core stage is settled in the VAB, Boeing will assist an inspection, examining the vehicle that underwent a major rocket engine test in February.

“Once that’s all done, and we’re ready to actually start integrating, they’re going to start hooking up the cranes to it, the one out of the five cranes in there, and actually starting to do a breakover, which is taking it from the horizontal state into the vertical state and moving it over to high bay three,” Ramos said. “When it starts integrating, we’re going to be there also really supporting any engineering just questions, concerns, and providing that, that support core stages, basically from development to build.”

The core stage, moving ever so slowly with teams members wearing hard hats and yellow vests, moved headfirst into the VAB by Thursday afternoon.

It will be the first time since 2011 a launch vehicle will be assembled in the historic NASA hangar and the first rocket since the 1970s headed back to the moon.

“To see something like this is amazing. And I hope it starts to inspire a lot of people, starts to really empower a lot of people not just in engineering and science, but in other diversity organizations just to join the journey,” Ramos said.