The Artemis-1 rocket seen as the fog clear at pad 39B during a "wet dress" rollout at Kennedy Space Center in Florida

NASA’s most powerful rocket ever prepares for launch

After years of work, the 322-foot Space Launch System, built to send people to the moon, is finally ready to fly.

The Space Launch System rocket for Artemis I prepares for a series of tests as the fog clears at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39B. 
Photograph by Dan Winters, National Geographic

On a cloudless March evening at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, a 322-foot rocket emerged from the building where it was stitched together. The gigantic orange-and-white vehicle, known as the Space Launch System, was making its public debut, fully assembled for a series of final tests before being cleared to fly. Attached to a support tower and riding on a transport vehicle, it inched toward the launch pad along a 4.2-mile path paved with river rocks. But suddenly, the procession shuddered to a halt.

Was something amiss? Had there been a mechanical issue? The standstill stretched for more than half an hour. As if sensing some mortal flaw in this newly hatched bird, vultures began to circle overhead.

Soon I realized the scavengers were simply riding the hot air rising off the sunbaked roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building, a 576-foot monolith where not only SLS, but the Apollo program’s Saturn V rocket and the winged space shuttle came together. Eventually SLS continued on its way, unperturbed. There were no grim omens—just ways to reach greater heights.

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