KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – NASA's moon rocket will not be rolled out to the launchpad in Florida until at least March, the space agency revealed Wednesday, pushing the Artemis-1 timeline into late spring.
Teams at Kennedy Space Center had been preparing to roll the 322-foot-tall Space Launch System rocket out of the Vehicle Assembly Building sometime in February to conduct a wet dress rehearsal at the launchpad, during which launch control runs through every step of the countdown, including fueling the rocket.
In fall 2021, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced the space agency was targeting mid-February to launch its moon-bound rocket and the Orion spacecraft. However, that shifted to mid-March due to an issue discovered with one of the rocket engine controllers. With the most recent delay, NASA is reviewing launch opportunities in April and May.
The Artemis-1 launch will be the maiden voyage for the SLS rocket. While no astronauts will be inside the Orion spacecraft orbiting the moon during the test mission, it will serve as a proving ground for upcoming astronaut launches and eventually returning humans to the moon by 2025.
Artemis refers to NASA's next-generation moon program. This time the plan will be to build a sustainable presence on the moon with the help of commercial companies and international partners. Astronauts have not stepped foot on the lunar surface since 1972.
In a call with reporters Wednesday, NASA managers did not disclose any major technical reason for the delay but said teams need a little more time before rolling out the massive launch vehicle.
"It's just a really big vehicle," NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for exploration systems development Tom Whitmeyer said, adding teams have a "punch list of a whole bunch of things" to complete before the rocket can leave the hangar.
"NASA has added additional time to complete closeout activities inside the VAB before rolling the integrated rocket and spacecraft out for the first time," NASA wrote in a blog post. "While the teams are not working any major issues, engineers continue work associated with final closeout tasks and flight termination system testing ahead of the wet dress rehearsal."
Whitmeyer was hesitant to confirm an exact rollout date for the dress rehearsal, but they are looking at mid-March. If the wet dress rehearsal is complete in time there are launch dates available from April 8 to 23 and May 7 to 21.
"We will be on track and ready when the hardware is ready to fly," NASA Artemis-1 mission manager Mike Sarafin said.
NASA leaders plan to provide another update in a few weeks closer to the rollout.
If all goes well on the Artemis-1 mission, a crew of astronauts will launch on Artemis-2 and orbit the moon with a lunar landing the following year.
The space agency has selected 18 NASA astronauts who could visit the moon under the Artemis program. The first astronauts to fly on Orion have not yet been announced.