Artist’s rendition of SLS on the launch pad. (Credit: NASA)
Almost seventy years ago, Huntsville first earned the nickname “The Rocket City” through hard work; engineering prowess; blood, sweat and tears; and rockets. Lots of rockets. From the Juno rocket that launched the first American satellite through the early days of human spaceflight, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville played a vital role in the space race of the 1960s, culminating with development of the Saturn V rocket that put the first humans on the Moon during the Apollo program. To explore that history, you can visit the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.
Today, America is leading an international team including the first woman and first person of color to the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo. Huntsville is once again playing a vital role. And, of course, part of that vital role involves rockets.*
NASA today is leading the Artemis program, an international effort that will see humans once again land on the Moon, this time not just to visit, but to pave the way for a sustained presence on the lunar surface and ultimately enable human missions to Mars.
One thing Artemis does have in common with Apollo, besides being twins in Greek mythology, is that today, just as in the 1960s, the next astronauts to walk on the Moon will ride on a rocket designed at Huntsville’s NASA Marshall Space Flight Center – the Space Launch System (SLS).
The real SLS at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center being prepared for launch. (Credit: NASA)
In just months, the skyscraper-sized Space Launch System rocket, or SLS, will make its first launch, Artemis I, carrying an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a test flight around the Moon. The second launch of SLS, Artemis II, will send astronauts aboard Orion farther into space than anyone has ever traveled, with the goal of the next flight launching the next human beings to walk on the Moon. SLS is one of a fleet of new American rockets that will carry out Artemis, supported by multiple rockets launching lunar landers, habitat modules and supplies to the lunar surface and orbit.
In addition to designing and managing development of the SLS rocket, Huntsville and North Alabama contributed to the launch vehicle in several other ways, including the following:
Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama tested NASA's Space Launch System liquid hydrogen test article tank to failure. (Credit: NASA)
After being built outside New Orleans, large test articles for the SLS core stage (the large orange stage in the middle) were brought to Huntsville for testing in test stands at Marshall Space Flight Center, subject to intense pressure to make sure they were ready to handle the strains of launch.
A “pathfinder” version of the SLS core stage, a version same size and weight but without the fuel tanks and lines, was built by Dynetics in Huntsville and G&G Steel in Russellville and Cordova. This version was used to make sure that facilities that would transport, test or launch SLS were ready for the real thing.
The second stage of SLS was built in Decatur by United Launch Alliance, under contract with Boeing.
A test version of the SLS second stage is loaded into a stand at Marshall Space Flight Center. (Credit: NASA)
The adapters that connect the second stage to the first stage and to Orion were built at Marshall Space Flight Center. The adapter to the first stage was built under contract to Huntsville’s Teledyne Brown Engineering; the adapter to Orion was the first new launch vehicle hardware built at Marshall by NASA itself since Apollo. Test articles of the stage and two adapters were also tested on stands at Marshall.
The launch vehicle’s avionics, the “brains” of the rocket, were developed and tested at Marshall.
Artemis Day Proclaimed in Alabama in 2020. (Credit: NASA)
This was not only a celebration of Madison County and Huntsville, the entire northern half of the state played an integral role in making this rocket a reality.
When Artemis I launches – and in a few years when the next astronauts walk on the Moon – it’s going to be a big celebration for the nation and for the world, but it’s going to be meaningful in a special way for the Rocket City, launching its second Moon rocket. We invite you to come and celebrate with us as we reach for the Moon and beyond!
*After all, we built this city on rocket role.