NASA just ordered megarocket boosters for moon missions through 2031

SLS rocket
Artist's impression of the SLS rocket reaching space. Credit: NASA (Image credit: Getty )

NASA just awarded a contract worth $3.19 billion to build rocket boosters for future moon missions, meant for Artemis moon missions through 2031.

The new award builds on a previous 2020 contract authorizing Northrop Grumman to prepare for production and building twin boosters for the next six Space Launch System megarocket flights following Artemis 3, which will bring the program through Artemis 9.

SLS — which will make its first uncrewed flight in 2022 — is tasked with sending crews across the solar system, starting with missions to lunar orbit, the lunar surface or the planned lunar Gateway space station. The first crewed orbital flight is expected in 2024 and the first landing mission in 2025.

NASA's contract statement (opens in new tab) indicated the award will be beneficial in helping the agency plan and grow the Artemis program to meet future needs.

Related: NASA targets February launch for its 1st SLS moon megarocket

"The contract allows NASA to work with Northrop Grumman to not only build the boosters for upcoming missions, but also to evolve and improve the boosters for future flights," stated Bruce Tiller, SLS booster manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

The SLS booster technology is based upon the solid rocket boosters used to assist the NASA space shuttle during launches. Solid rocket boosters were used during 135 space shuttle missions between 1981 and 2011. The manufacturer was initially Thiokol, later called ATK. Northrop Grumman now has the technology thanks to a series of company mergers in the last decade.

The SLS boosters are designed to be one-time use (not reusable, as the shuttle program asked for) and include a fifth segment over the shuttle's four, NASA documentation (opens in new tab) indicates. Northrop Grumman's statement (opens in new tab) about the new contract indicates more design changes the shuttle program are already underway, to start flying during the ninth mission of SLS. 

This NASA graphic shows the stages of the Space Launch System rocket, including its twin solid rocket boosters built by Northrop Grumman. (Image credit: NASA)

"The new ... boosters will replace the steel cases used for the shuttle with a weight-saving composite case and upgraded structures, electronic thrust vector control systems and propellant materials to address obsolescence," the company stated.

"This improved design," Northrop continued, "additionally provides process simplification, improved interface, and streamlined ground processing ... leading to greater productivity and efficiency."

Orbital ATK, a predecessor entity to Northrop Grumman, began test firings of the booster system in 2009, following years of development. The SLS booster was originally slated to be the first stage of the Ares rocket under a canceled moon-to-Mars program known as Constellation, but the technology was eventually repurposed for SLS.

Northrop Grumman has been the lead manufacturer for SLS booster development since acquiring Orbital ATK under an agreement announced in 2017.

This new announcement arises from a nearly $50 million NASA letter contract (opens in new tab) in June 2020 to provide funding and authorization for future Northrop Grumman booster orders. It authorizes production and operation for boosters supporting the missions Artemis 4 through 8, along with evaluation of a new booster design to fly on Artemis 9.

As of December 2021, Northrop Grumman says it has finished booster production on Artemis 2, and that all segments for the Artemis 3 boosters have been cast with propellant. Artemis 4 segments started casting in November.

Northrop Grumman is also executing other NASA contracts in support of moon missions. This includes building the abort motor and attitude control motor for the Orion spacecraft's launch abort system, and building a habitat and logistics outpost module for Gateway.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace