The biggest rocket to ever lift off from Earth is on tap for launch from Kennedy Space Center this spring, but it won’t be the only new name to make its Space Coast debut this year.
While the Artemis I mission to the moon will carry the new Orion spacecraft into space for the first time, launches in 2022 look to send up missions from new Axiom Space and Sierra Space for the first time while Boeing hopes to finally get its CST-100 Starliner to the International Space Station.
But the first Artemis mission, that looks to finally send NASA’s massive, multibillion Space Launch System off the ground after years of delay, is the headliner.
“We are going to be as aggressive as we can be in a safe and technically feasible way to beat our competitors with boots on the moon,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in November when he outlined the next steps for the Artemis program.
Originally to have launched in 2016, the development of the program has already topped $20 billion, and future launches of Artemis face further delays and $2 billion price tags per launch. Artemis I, though, is gearing up for a payoff, targeting either March or April for liftoff.
It all depends on the results of a wet dress rehearsal in which the 322-foot-tall, rocket that weighs more than 5.75 million pounds is rolled out to the launch pad to be filled with propellants, drained, and returned to the Vehicle Assembly Building for analysis.
If all goes well, its next trip to the pad will be the last time it’s on Earth, lifting off with 8.8 million pounds of thrust on a mission that will take it 280,000 miles away, 40,000 miles beyond the moon, which is farther than any human-rated spacecraft has ever flown.
If successful, NASA will move forward with Artemis II, targeting May 2024 with a crew to orbit the moon, and then Artemis III in 2025 that looks to return humans to the lunar surface, including the first woman, for the first time since the Apollo program ended in 1972.
The SLS design is geared toward bringing both humans and cargo to deep space. The initial design has the capacity to haul 59,500 pounds to the moon. Future designs look to increase that capacity to more than 100,000 pounds.
“Right now there’s only one rocket that’s capable of doing this, and this is SLS with Orion on top,” Nelson said in November. “We’re going with what we’ve got.”
BOEING’S STARLINER CAPSULE
While NASA’s deep-space craft may finally take off, another spacecraft looks to turn the page on its effort to be certified to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
The Boeing CST-100 Starliner has had its share of problems completing a test flight as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and join SpaceX with its Dragon capsule in ferrying humans to the ISS.
While the initial uncrewed test flight successfully launched and landed in December 2019, software issues were among several problems with the mission that meant Starliner never rendezvoused with the ISS. After working through all of the 80 issues with NASA, the company was set once again to try its uncrewed test flight in August 2020, but a new issue involving stuck valves forced more delays.
Now the company has decided to introduce new hardware for the test flight and is aiming for another attempt.
“Our objective was to get back to flight safely and as soon as possible,” said Boeing Vice President John Vollmer, the company’s commercial crew program manager.
NASA and Boeing officials say the launch window is open in May from Cape Canaveral, with the Starliner sitting atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, but several potential dates are under review. If successful, a follow-up crewed test flight could also occur in 2022, and then regular use alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in 2023.
When Boeing and SpaceX won the initial Commercial Crew contract from NASA, another company was left out — Sierra Nevada Corp. Now redubbed Sierra Space, its efforts may see fruition still this year with its Dream Chaser set to share space station cargo resupply duties with launches from Cape Canaveral.
With what looks like a mini space shuttle, Dream Chaser is still on target to make its first flight to the ISS by the end of the year. While the company still has plans to build a crew-capable version of the Dream Chaser, its first duties will be to take the first of seven contracted supply flights to the station.
It has named the first vessel the Dream Chaser Tenacity and will launch atop United Launch Alliance rockets. Something unique for NASA, though, will be the spacecraft’s ability to return to Earth, landing just like the space shuttle at Space Florida’s Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center.
“To have a commercial vehicle return from the International Space Station to a runway landing for the first time since NASA’s space shuttle program ended a decade ago will be a historic achievement,” said Sierra Space Chairman Fatih Ozmen.
SPACEX CREWED MISSIONS
At the same time, SpaceX will continue to ramp up flights in its Crew Dragon atop Falcon 9 rockets. Having already flown five times with humans from Kennedy, it’s set to send NASA astronauts to the ISS on both the Crew-4 flight in April and Crew-5 in October.
But first, SpaceX has been hired by another company, Axiom Space, to ferry its own set of paying civilians to the ISS.
The mission, AX-1, is targeting liftoff as early as Feb. 28, will be the first time civilians will have visited the NASA side of the station. All previous space tourism ventured have come from passengers on Russian Soyuz rockets.
The mission’s four crew include Axiom employee and commander former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría and three civilians — Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe — who each paid Axiom $55 million for the trip.
Christian Maender, director of in-space manufacturing & research for Axiom, said the SpaceX partnership is in place for its first four launches, with a second one planned in November 2022.
“We don’t care which Uber we get as long as we get there,” he said.
Axiom’s eventual goal is to launch its own modules, the first as early as 2024, to attach to the ISS and have those disconnect for their own standalone private space station.
“It really is about expanding the opportunity to do more work in space to a set of organizations and entities that maybe have not had access to space traditionally,” Maender said.
SpaceX will also continue its high volume turnaround of Falcon 9 launches from both Kennedy and Canaveral while also attempting the fourth ever launch of its massive Falcon Heavy rocket for a Space Force mission in the first quarter of 2022.
FALCON HEAVY, STARSHIP
Falcon Heavy, which generates more than 5 million pounds of thrust on liftoff, first flew in 2018, taking SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s personal Tesla into deep space as part of its test flight. It has not flown since 2019.
It will continue to be the heavy-lift workhorse for SpaceX until it completes its next generation spacecraft Starship under development at its Texas launch facility. SpaceX is awaiting Fed Aviation Authority approval for its first orbital test flight sometime after Feb. 28.
While not expected to arrive to the Space Coast in 2022, the company is building out a Starship launch complex at KSC.
And while Elon Musk’s company will be busy on all of those fronts, ULA is hoping to introduce its new Vulcan rocket, while Blue Origin is aiming to launch its first New Glenn heavy-lift rocket by the end of the year.
In addition, two smaller rocket companies look to make their first launches from Canaveral. Relativity Space with its 3-D printed rockets and Astra Space have plans for test launches from complexes not used for years.
In all, the new players and new payloads promise to make 2022 a busy launch year.
“This is an inflection point in our nation’s space program,” Nelson said in October 2021. “There’s a lot of exciting things happening right here at Kennedy. There’s a lot of exciting things happening to our overall space program.”
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