NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine showed off the completed core stage of the first-ever Space Launch System rocket during a news event held today (Dec. 9).
The event was held at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the core stage of the rocket that will launch the first Artemis mission was recently completed. That flight, the first step toward NASA's goal of landing humans on the moon in 2024, will carry an uncrewed Orion capsules around the moon in 2021.
"Think of it as NASA's Christmas present to America," Bridenstine said, referring to the core stage's imminent departure for testing at another NASA facility, Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
All told, the core stage is 212 feet tall (65 meters) and includes four engines and two liquid- propellant tanks. "I'm going to call it the ninth wonder of the world," Douglas Loverro, the new head of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said during the event.
Bridenstine's speech was more about celebration than announcements, but the discussion left in the air several concerns that NASA is facing about both the rocket and the larger Artemis program.
NASA has contracts with Boeing for only the first two SLS rockets, Bridenstine said, not later iterations of the launcher. But it's the third rocket in the series that will send astronauts to the moon in 2024 to meet the agency's much-touted goal.
The agency also continued to avoid offering a schedule for Artemis flights or a cost estimate for the SLS rockets. Bridenstine has been demurring on offering a launch date for the uncrewed first Artemis mission, deferring that question to the new director of human exploration. Although he called Loverro up to the stage at the event, no date was announced.
Similarly, NASA has deflected questions about the anticipated price per rocket of the SLS program. In his comments, Bridenstine argued that cost will depend on how many rockets NASA ends up commissioning — the more rockets, the lower the individual price will end up. In October, the agency expressed interest in as many as 10 SLS rockets for the Artemis program.
- NASA Test-Fires Megarocket Engine That May Take Astronauts to the Moon (Video)
- Could NASA Build the Famous Saturn V Today? It's Working on It, with a Twist
- The World's Tallest Rockets: How They Stack Up