Bridenstine and SLS core stage
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, with the core stage of the first SLS behind him, said he expected the rocket's debut to take place some time in 2021. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

NEW ORLEANS — NASA declared the long-delayed core stage for the first Space Launch System rocket complete Dec. 9, although the rocket’s launch is still more than a year away.

At an event at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility here attended by government and industry officials, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that core stage for the SLS that will fly on the Artemis 1 mission is ready to ship out of the factory by the end of the month.

“By the end of the year we’re going to be moving it out of the Michoud Assembly Facility,” Bridenstine said of the SLS core stage, shrouded in scaffolding as engineers wrap up final tests on the vehicle. “Think of it as NASA’s Christmas present to America.”

The stage will be loaded on a barge and transported to the nearby Stennis Space Center, where it will stay for several months of tests. Those tests will conclude in a Green Run static-fire test where the stage’s four RS-25 engines perform a full-duration burn on a test stand.

NASA hasn’t announced a specific date for the shipment of the stage, which agency officials acknowledged could slip to early January. “Once we finish the functional testing, then we’ll start to prep for ship,” John Honeycutt, NASA SLS program manager, said in a later panel discussion at the event. “I do think that we’ve got a good chance of rolling onto the barge by the end of the year, and if not, it will be shortly thereafter.”

The agency also has yet to announce a new target launch date for the Artemis 1 mission, an uncrewed test flight of the SLS and Orion spacecraft. Bridenstine said at the event that setting a new date for the mission will be a priority for Doug Loverro, the new NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

“I want to make sure that, before we put a hard date on it, I give our new associate administrator time for him to do his own assessment,” Bridenstine said. “The goal here ultimately is to be realistic about our projections.”

Loverro, in a later conversation with reporters, said he estimated it would take about two and a half to three months to carry out that assessment. He declined to say if that would be ready around the time the agency’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal is released, which would be no earlier than early February.

However, Bridenstine made it clear he expected the Artemis 1 launch to take place in 2021, rather than the late 2020 date the agency had previously been targeting. “We’ve had the date out there that we would launch Artemis 1 in 2021,” he said, a date he reiterated at a later social media panel discussion. “It’s looking like 2021 might be in the cards for the first Artemis mission.”

The timing of that mission will depend on both the readiness of the SLS as well as the Orion spacecraft. NASA recently shipped the Orion crew and service module to its Plum Brook Station in Ohio for environmental testing. Mark Kirasich, NASA Orion program manager, said that the spacecraft should start a 63-day thermal vacuum test there by the end of the week.

“I’m still hanging on with my fingernails to a November 2020 date on Artemis 1,” he told reporters at the event. However, he said he had “zero margin” for that date, “which is why the administrator likely announced 2021 today.”

Both Bridenstine and Loverro, though, remained steadfast in the long-term goal of landing astronauts on the moon by the end of 2024, with Loverro sporting a lapel pin with the number of days remaining to Dec. 31, 2024. “Our goal is to launch the first woman and the next man to the south pole of the moon in 2024,” Bridenstine said.

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...