It looks like old times — the good kind — at KSC, as the recent spike in activity at the Vehicle Assembly Building is reminiscent of the Shuttle era. This time, it’s the stacking of the Space Launch System (SLS) that has the high-bays humming as NASA’s own human-rated, heavy-lift vehicle is prepped for a full-up launch. It’s been a long time coming: Experimental Test Flight 1 (EFT-1), aiming to send an Orion capsule to the Moon and back.
So, we are looking ahead to late 2021 or early 2022, assuming the full-up integration and testing goes as planned. Once more, the mobile launch platform, its massive crawler and Launch Complex 39 will be brought together as the jumping-off point for the most powerful rocket on the planet. We will witness four flight-proven RS-25 main engines — coupled with a pair of solid rocket boosters evolved from Shuttle-times — loft a human-ready spacecraft beyond Earth orbit for the first time since 1972.
While the cadence of SLS launches will not match the pace of Saturn V or Shuttle era flights, EFT-1 is the harbinger of possibilities to come: deep-space flights, exploration at local LaGrange points and beyond, and the ability to lift the equipment necessary to build complex, multi-component vehicles for extended human spaceflight. How SLS might be supplemented by or paired with the capabilities of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Starship are to be determined. But the prospects are exciting and the skies will be the limit no more. Stay tuned.