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

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — As NASA prepares to install the Orion spacecraft on the first Space Launch System rocket, agency officials played down any effect coronavirus vaccine mandates will have on final preparations for the launch.

In sessions of the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium last week, Artemis program leaders said the next major milestone in preparations for the Artemis 1 launch is the installation of the Orion spacecraft on top of the SLS that has otherwise been fully assembled in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center.

Jeremy Parsons, deputy manager for the Exploration Ground Systems program at KSC, said Orion is scheduled to move over to the VAB on Oct. 19. “Then we’re going to immediately roll into putting it on the vehicle, probably the next day,” he said during an Oct. 13 panel session.

Once installed, the combined SLS/Orion stack will undergo tests, then the vehicle will be rolled out to Launch Complex 39B for a wet dress rehearsal, where the core stage is filled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants and goes through a countdown that stops just before engine ignition. After that, it will return to the VAB for final preparations before being rolled out to the pad for the Artemis 1 launch. “We’re in the home stretch,” he said.

NASA has not set a formal launch date for Artemis 1, although agency leaders have indicated it’s increasingly likely that launch will slip into 2022. NASA Associate Administrator Bob Cabana said Sept. 30 that the launch will take place “more than likely early next year.”

Amit Kshatriya, assistant deputy administrator for exploration systems development at NASA, said it’s too soon now to set a formal target launch date for Artemis 1. “I think after wet dress we’ll have enough data to pin that down,” he said. NASA hasn’t announced a schedule for the wet dress rehearsal.

Preparations for Artemis 1 have been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic, including the wave of cases this summer associated with the Delta variant. “Florida was a hotbed for COVID, so that really impacted our team,” Parsons said. He estimated that, during the Delta surge, more than 100 workers were in quarantine at a time.

“It’s had a pretty good impact on the industrial base,” said John Honeycutt, NASA SLS program manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center, of the pandemic. “We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time working with the prime contractors in tracking the performance of the industrial base.”

“Lockheed Martin was tremendous in their internal protocols and kept all the factories going and made progress, albeit somewhat slower at times,” said Paul Marshall, assistant program manager for Orion at the Johnson Space Center. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion.

He agreed with Honeycutt that the biggest effects were on the broader industrial base, particularly among smaller suppliers. “We’re seeing much longer deliveries on simple parts, and that’s largely a creation, directly and indirectly, of the problems with the pandemic.”

Officials, though, played down any impacts COVID-19 vaccination mandates will have on the program. President Joe Biden issued executive orders in September requiring vaccinations for both federal employees and contractors, with limited exceptions. That’s led to concerns about staffing, particularly in regions of the country with lagging vaccination rates.

“For SLS, I think most of the team has been vaccinated,” Honeycutt said. The program is dealing on a case-by-case basis with individuals seeking exemptions, such as for medical or religious reasons. “It’s probably just a handful of people. We’re working with the centers and the agency to posture ourselves to do what we can to accommodate those people and not let it impact the work.”

“Right now, we have not experienced any schedule impacts,” said Parsons. “We do anticipate probably some attrition, but relatively small numbers.”

“What we’re most focused on is keeping our teams safe,” he added. “I do not anticipate any significant impacts due to the vaccine mandate.”

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...