An illustration shows NASA's Orion spacecraft orbiting the moon, which could happen as early as late 2021. Image courtesy of NASA
ORLANDO, Fla., Feb. 2 (UPI) -- NASA announced Wednesday that its plan to launch the Artemis I SLS rocket on an uncrewed journey around the moon in March has slipped to April or May.
The space agency said it wasn't working on any "major issues" but that engineers simply needed more time.
"There's a lot of activities ... some of them are unique to our rocket and some are unique to the fact that this is an uncrewed test flight," NASA's Tom Whitmeyer said in a press conference Wednesday.
"There's no one specific thing, we just have a lot of things that we need to close out. This is a big vehicle, with a lot of instrumentation that needs to be finished and prepared for the final closeout," said Whitmeyer, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development.
Such activities include testing of the flight termination system, which blows up the rocket in case it should malfunction and fly off course, creating a hazard.
NASA has been preparing the huge Space Launch System moon rocket for final tests, or a "wet dress rehearsal," at Kennedy Space Center. The 322-foot-tall SLS is the largest NASA rocket since the last Saturn V rocket rolled out to a launch pad in 1972.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to create delays due to illness or quarantine among staff and because of supply chain problems, Mike Bolger, NASA's exploration ground systems program manager, said in the press conference.
"I guess with the Omicron variant, I think that caught everybody off guard just by the sheer number of cases that we have to deal with and so when you get a positive test, then you kind of go through the close contact procedure ... and that affects your touch labor workforce," Bolger said. "I couldn't put a duration on it, but it's slowed us down."
The first lunar mission in decades will help NASA understand how the giant new rocket and the Orion capsule work in preparation for a crewed launch and eventual moon landing.
NASA's lunar plans include an Artemis II mission, now slated for 2024, that would carry four astronauts around the moon, and Artemis III in 2025, which would land Americans on the moon for the first time since Apollo.
NASA originally had hoped to launch the Artemis I mission years ago, and recently planned the mission for the end of 2021. But the agency dealt with numerous delays, including those caused by work interruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The upcoming dress rehearsal, which includes full fueling of the rocket, will mark the first time the SLS and Orion have been to a launch pad, a little over four miles from the Vehicle Assembly Building.
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