In the coming months, NASA will launch the first Artemis mission from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. This milestone not only puts the United States on a path to return humans to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Program, but also sets the stage for the next giant leap: exploration of Mars.

Since astronauts last walked on the lunar surface almost 50 years ago, robotic exploration of deep space has seen decades of technological advancement and scientific discovery. For the past 20 years, humans have continuously lived and worked aboard the International Space Station, 250 miles above Earth, preparing for the day we once again move farther into the solar system.

“We’re entering a critical and exciting time for deep space exploration,” said John Shannon, Boeing vice president and Space Launch System program manager, “and a moment I’ve dreamed about since childhood. I loved my jobs as a flight director and program manager for space shuttle, then as International Space Station program manager for Boeing, but my heart’s always been in human exploration of deep space.”

The Orion spacecraft for NASA’s Artemis I mission is lowered on top of the Space Launch System rocket at Kennedy Space Center in October 2021. (NASA photo)

NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket will serve as the backbone capability for sending human explorers 240,000 miles to the Moon, and then at least 34 million miles to Mars. According to NASA, the SLS family of rockets’ speed and lift capability opens doors to exploration that would be closed with other rockets. Only SLS can send a crewed Orion spacecraft to the Moon with more than 10 additional metric tons of essential cargo on a single launch. And only SLS can deliver — in a single launch — architecture such as cargo landers and fully outfitted surface habitats for 60-day missions.

SLS rocket missions will require less time — up to half as much — than other rockets to deliver spacecraft to the Moon (four days), Mars (nine months), Jupiter (two and a half years), Saturn (six years) and interstellar space (15 years), making SLS ideally compatible with government or commercial interests.

Shannon said only a nationally backed, technology-proven, and uniquely powerful rocket can handle missions that will exponentially expand our knowledge and open a universe of commercial pursuits. The SLS rocket, he said, will allow America to retain its leadership position in space, even as the U.S. invests in next-generation alternative rocket technologies.

“Some of the missions being developed may not be attractive to private launch companies, but they’re essential for the United States to remain a leader in space,” Shannon said. “In the meantime, that work on real rockets is providing real data that will help industry to achieve those next great technological leaps we all want to see.”

He added that it would be an “unacceptable risk” for the United States to hand over its role in deep space exploration in the hope that a private company’s concepts will be human-tested and ready for flight in the near term – ahead of our international competitors.

SLS is enabling the United States and our international partners to build infrastructure to execute a variety of deep space science, commercial, and security missions to study the outer planets and other parts of the solar system; find habitable planets using large-diameter, space-based telescopes; launch solar power plants; and protect our planet from asteroids. Data will also inform scientists which resources are available to continue exploration. Decades in the future, the industry may be using materials found through these explorations to develop propellants on Mars. Launching vehicles from the surface of the moon will also be possible, Shannon said, as well as launching spacecraft, habitats and support systems for living and working in deep space.

“We don’t want to go back to the Moon for just a few missions,” Shannon said. “We want to set up a long-term foundation for exploration and enable discoveries that will improve life on Earth and prepare us to go to Mars – and beyond.”

Returning to the Moon safely, sustainably and affordably

In early 2022, NASA will demonstrate SLS’s lunar capability when the rocket sends the Orion crew vehicle around the Moon on the Artemis I mission. Meanwhile, industry partners nationwide have already completed major elements of SLS and Orion for Artemis II — the first crewed flight — as they prepare to support a broader vision for a permanent human presence in deep space.

Michelle Parker, Boeing Space and Launch Deputy General Manager, said the rocket is highly adaptable and that even with changing mission focuses, no radical alterations to the rocket or the infrastructure needed to design, test and build it, have been necessary. SLS has been able to accommodate shifting destinations and payloads, offering optimal speed, lift and volume for the landers, gateways, rovers, habitats, and landing and ascent vehicles envisioned for off-planet living.

“We’re evolving, refining and improving year after year,” Parker said, “and we’re meeting new mission guidelines because that’s how SLS was conceived – as a safe, sustainable and affordable bedrock for NASA’s deep space human missions, whatever those may be.”

The only human-rated rocket to get to the moon and Mars

Powered by the SLS, NASA will deliver in-space capabilities to lunar orbit, and return humans to the Moon’s surface. Parker stressed that only SLS can carry both the crewed Orion and critical hardware, such as a lunar lander, to lunar orbit in a single mission, saving time and cost.

“No other rocket – including the non-human-rated Starship – has the performance to send multiple heavy payloads and crews to the Moon or Mars on the same launch vehicle,” Parker said.

Strengthened by industrial and global partnerships, NASA’s Artemis program will enable new missions that experts predict will transform life on Earth and open new investment in an increasingly compelling marketplace.

“SLS will pave the way for commercial investment in deep space exploration by providing this safe and sustainable transport system,” said Shannon. “Its flexibility and evolvability will launch a permanent human presence in deep space.”

The path to the pad

The Artemis I system is fully stacked and completing integration and testing atop the mobile launch platform in Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building. On the upcoming Artemis I uncrewed flight, SLS will launch an Orion spacecraft to the Moon to test the performance of the integrated system. Additional missions are planned with this 322-foot NASA SLS Block 1 configuration and its more than 27-metric-ton launch payload capability to Trans-Lunar Injection (TLI) beyond Earth orbit, as the even more powerful, 364-foot Block 1B version is designed and built. This upgraded, two-stage configuration will provide NASA with lift capability of 42 metric tons to TLI beyond Earth orbit – almost three times that of any other rocket – using the Boeing-built Exploration Upper Stage (EUS).

Shannon said the powerful SLS can accommodate larger payloads co-manifested with crew, which means fewer launches and less complex operations – for instance, no in-space fuel depots that require 10-plus missions to fill.

“Faster speeds translate to shorter trips and less exposure to the harsh space environment for crew and cargo, Shannon said, “meaning decreased risk and cost and shorter turnaround for scientific discoveries.” He credits much of these improvements to the rocket’s evolution from the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage to the EUS for in-space propulsion.

After completing NASA’s critical design review for the EUS in December 2020, Boeing has begun fabrication activities to support building the first EUS at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. On the factory floor, the work is being completed next to the SLS core stages for Artemis II and III, according to Boeing EUS program manager Steve Snell.

“Everything we’ve learned from building the core stage for Artemis I is being applied to the next core stages and to EUS,” Snell said. “The factory setup, the tools, the processes – we’re improving with each new program element.”

State-of-the-art tooling and technology

These days, the Michoud facility, where the Saturn V first stages were built, is a wholly different place than it was just a few years ago – as are NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Johnson Space Center in Texas, and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

“I remember visiting Michoud – shuttered after the space shuttle program,” Shannon said. “It was dark and dusty and aerospace industry was gone, and I realized the immense challenges we faced getting back on track.”

Just past its 60th anniversary, Michoud is now a state-of-the-art factory that houses a number of revolutionary tools specifically designed to develop and build the SLS core and upper stages. Innovations include a 170-foot friction stir welding tool, the largest in the world, which offers lighter, stronger welds with fewer defects; technology that allows Boeing crews to apply Thermal Protection System foam both precisely and broadly, yielding a faster, higher-quality and more efficient application; computer-aided design that leads to extraordinarily accurate design and test parameters never before used in such a complex space system; and onboard flight controls specific to mission parameters.

The SLS workforce at Michoud includes experienced Boeing leaders, space shuttle veterans and academic partners such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Shannon said he has been thrilled to see many SLS leadership positions filled with early to mid-career innovators and engineers in their 20s and 30s, passing knowledge from one generation to the next.

“That’s important, as we see more and more of our rocket experts hit retirement age,” Shannon said. “If we hadn’t started building SLS when we did, those decades of space systems experience would have been lost from America’s space industry. Building it back has come at a cost, but that investment is paying off for this country’s leadership in space and for continued exploration and discovery.”

Snell agrees. “The skills on display at Michoud are a national asset we’re strengthening every day,” he said.

Boeing builds the core and upper stages of NASA’s Space Launch System at Michoud Assembly Facility outside New Orleans.

Meanwhile, the leading-edge technologies used in SLS production and the modernized facilities where SLS is built and tested are helping reinvigorate the U.S. aerospace industrial base. According to Shannon, almost 50 percent of the contract dollars have fueled more than 1,000 suppliers, companies that have contributed to the design, test, production and launch of the SLS.

Shannon said a number of companies that worked on the shuttle program have re-joined the space systems supply chain, benefiting the entire industry as they renew their certifications and re-establish their own talent and supply chains.

“American small businesses are literally providing the nuts and bolts of NASA’s space systems,” said Shannon. “Every business requires a stable demand for their services to justify investing in the people and resources needed to step out into new territory. By leading the way, NASA provides the stability necessary to rebuild a competitive space industry. It’s hands-down one of the best investments in American manufacturing,”

Shannon acknowledges that it wasn’t always easy to see the commercial and financial applications of the shuttle and the space station in the 1980s. Today, however, “it’s all being turned over to industry, which is starting to capitalize,” he said. “It’s a $4 trillion industry of lower Earth orbit capabilities, and the U.S. is poised to take advantage of that. We’ll see the same thing with the moon in 20 years, and 20 years after that, we’ll see it with Mars.”

Today, core stages and other elements for NASA’s Artemis missions are using that reinvigorated supply chain and the lessons learned from the first build. Concurrently, workforce, suppliers and facilities are working overtime to build the next evolution of the rocket, Block 1B, which uses the Boeing-built EUS. Improvements to the systems, materials and processes are folded into each iteration, leveraging the agency’s investment.

Enabling a national capability … and national asset

The benefits of the advanced design and manufacturing that built SLS were proven throughout 2019 and into 2020 in a series of eight tests known as the Green Run. Following the seventh test, the Green Run Wet Dress Rehearsal on January 16, 2020, the Boeing and NASA team initiated a hot fire test, the first in history in which a heavy-lift rocket core stage fired up all four engines on the initial try. That achievement was followed with a full eight-minute hot fire test in March.

Parker credits the successful Green Run series (without prototypes or a dedicated ground-test article) on Boeing and NASA experience and cutting-edge analysis tools – including the ability to model and analyze vehicle parts interaction, heat generation and wear and tear.

“We can manufacture hardware to such a tight tolerance and analyze it to such a fine point that our multi-industry group is able to develop and build the most heavily instrumented rocket in history, more flexible and capable than Saturn V, crew-rated from the very beginning, all for lower cost,” Parker said. “NASA will launch Orion on first-build hardware. That’s a strong testament to the quality of core-stage production while saving the cost of prototypes. It’s unprecedented.”

Shannon said among all the benefits of the SLS, he’s perhaps most enthused about the return on American investment. “One rocket, one launch, one mission can achieve unparalleled science and discovery, reducing risk to astronauts and saving millions in launch costs,” he said. “As humanity’s needs change, we can leverage the nation’s cutting-edge space facilities and capabilities. SLS enables America’s future in deep space.”