1 of 5 | NASA's Orion spacecraft is shown stacked on top of the SLS rocket inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Friday in preparation for a planned launch in early 2022 to the moon. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla., Nov. 8 (UPI) -- NASA is nearing the final stages of rehearsal and checkouts of the Artemis I moon rocket -- the first rocket of its kind since the Apollo program -- before an uncrewed launch from Florida around the moon planned for early next year.
The 322-foot-tall SLS rocket and Orion capsule are completely assembled and stacked at Kennedy Space Center, a glowing orange and white tower reaching almost as high as the massive Saturn rockets of the Apollo era.
"We're in that final 10 yards to the finish line, and the excitement is definitely building," Amy Marasia, the NASA Orion spacecraft production branch lead, said in an interview Friday at the space center.
"There are no astronauts on this flight, but it's going to the moon, to be in orbit around the moon for weeks -- this scope of a mission hasn't happened in 50 years."
The massive Vehicle Assembly Building, in which Saturn rockets and space shuttles once stood, is home to the SLS as it enters the final phase of testing before launch.
The space agency allowed media photographs of the stacked rocket for the first time Friday.
Marasia has worked on NASA projects for 27 years, starting as a contractor on the Constellation program, which also was to take astronauts to the moon. The Obama administration canceled that program in 2010, but NASA continued with designs for the Orion capsule and eventually the SLS rocket.
"There have been delays, but I never doubted we'd get to this point again, ready to launch," Marasia said. "Even through the COVID-19 shutdowns, work never stopped on Orion."
The Orion capsule for Artemis I is similar to that in which astronauts will fly, but lacks a waste-handling system, crew displays and manual controls for navigation, Marasia said.
Meanwhile, pieces of the upcoming Artemis missions, which will carry people, are coming together in other buildings around the space center.
Technicians are assembling two more Orion capsules, for Artemis I and Artemis II, in the high-ceiling, white clean room at the Operations and Checkout Building.
The second stage for the Artemis II rocket awaits stacking in a hangar at nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Once it launches, NASA will collect data first from rocket and and then for weeks from capsule as it orbits the moon, flies 40,000 miles past and returns to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
NASA plans to land astronauts on the moon by 2024, but the agency has acknowledged that goal may be difficult to achieve due to a lack of congressional funding.
The space agency plans to roll out the SLS rocket out to Launch Complex 39B in January for a complete countdown rehearsal, with the first launch window expected to be Feb. 12 to 27.
"We did perform our first power-up on top of the SLS, and at the end of this month we're going to perform our first integrated power-up with the rocket," Laura Poliah, NASA Orion test lead, said in an interview.
"We'll also be testing communications, all the signals ... making sure we can communicate with the vehicle when it's orbiting the moon."
The uncrewed launch and extended flight around the moon should yield some new information, even surprises, that will help make crewed missions better, said Amanda Stevenson, operations lead for NASA's Crew Module Adapter assembly.
"It's indescribable to see the rocket and capsule all put together now," Stevenson said. "We seen it in computer designs, in drawings, and now we've seen it. It's surreal, and it give us all a real sense of accomplishment."
The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA