The first Space Launch System rocket is currently undergoing testing inside the Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building. A mass simulator on top of the rocket will soon be replaced by the Orion spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

WASHINGTON — A top NASA official says the agency will soon set a target launch date for the first Space Launch System mission, but that it’s “more than likely” it will slip into early 2022.

Speaking at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable webinar Sept. 30, NASA Associate Administrator Bob Cabana said a firm date for the launch of the Artemis 1 mission hadn’t been set, but suggested it was unlikely to take place before the end of this year.

“I’ll get you a firm date on that hopefully after next week. We’ll set an initial date after the team comes and briefs us on where we are,” he said. “We’ll be flying this Artemis 1 mission hopefully, more than likely, early next year.”

NASA officials have been holding out hope that Artemis 1 could still launch before the end of the year, although they were increasingly hedging their bets. “Artemis 1 will be at the end of this year or the first part of next year,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a call with reporters Sept. 21.

Cabana said workers just completed the night before “modal testing” of the SLS, where the vehicle is subjected to vibrations to determine its natural frequencies. The next milestone is the installation of the Orion spacecraft, taking the place of a mass simulator currently on top of the rocket. He said the Orion spacecraft will be moved to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center Oct. 13 to be integrated onto the SLS.

Once in place, the entire stack will be rolled out to Launch Complex 39B for a wet dress rehearsal, where the core stage is filled with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen in a practice countdown that stops just before ignition of the stage’s four RS-25 engines. After that, the rocket will roll back to the VAB for any final work and reviews before going back to the pad for launch.

Asked later in the presentation to give his best guess for both the Artemis 1 launch date as well as future Artemis missions, he declined, citing the upcoming briefing. “Next week, Jim Free and Kathy [Lueders] are coming to brief me and the rest of the team up here on all of the work they were doing at Kennedy this week,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have some realistic dates for where we’re going to hit these missions as we go forward. So stand by.”

NASA named Free its new associate administrator for exploration systems development Sept. 21, part of a restructuring that split the former Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) into two organizations. Lueders, who previously was in charge of HEOMD, is now associate administrator for space operations, responsible for the International Space Station and related programs.

Cabana endorsed the reorganization because it offered a “more focused look” on exploration programs in particular. “He’s just a great engineer and an outstanding program manager,” he said of Free, who returned to the agency from the private sector to lead the new exploration directorate. “It’s going to be his focus to deliver the systems we need to execute Artemis and a sustainable return to the moon, and then to continue to move us on to Mars.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...