Photo by: NASA


NASA’s Giant Rocket Test Fails (Sort Of)

It was all supposed to be great. On January 16th, NASA performed its first major test run in a long, long time. It was a test for the core stage of its upcoming Space Launch System (SLS), a beast of a rocket that will carry astronauts to the Moon, Mars, and more.

January 29, 2021

At over 200 feet long and 27 feet wide, the core stage and its four engines will heave the rocket off the ground, the hardest part of a launch. The test was supposed to last nearly 8 minutes, the length of time that the main engines will have to perform their launch duties. But only 50 seconds into the test, the onboard computer system signaled that something was going very wrong. At 67 seconds, the test ended.

Photo by: NASA


While the test did abort early, nothing blew up – which is definitely a “win” when it comes to rocket testing. Indeed, analysis of the test data discovered that the fault happened when the engines were beginning to gimbal, or change direction, a crucial part of the launch. However, the computer flagged it because a sensor on the hydraulics reached a safety threshold. But that threshold was intentionally conservative for the test. If the same situation happened during an actual flight, the engines would still perform as expected, and not blow up (hopefully).

NASA and its partner Aerojet Rocketdyne, who is building the core stage, are pouring over the data from the test to fully diagnose the issue, and determine if they can swap out one of the engines (which means they could do a new test in as little as a week) or if they need to start from scratch.

This exactly why we do tests – to find potential problems and fix them safely.

But on paper, the SLS (which will be the biggest, most powerful rocket ever made) was supposed to be easy. NASA hasn’t designed a rocket since the 1970’s, so the SLS is supposed to carry on the legacy of the Space Shuttle. The RS-25 engines are the same ones used in that program, and visually and structurally the SLS looks very similar to the Space Shuttle’s external fuel tank. But as this recent test showed, rockets are never easy.

And now the entire SLS program is now potentially in jeopardy. It’s already 33% over budget (currently sitting at $17 billion spent and counting) and late (the first full launch was supposed to happen three years ago). The new Biden administration hasn’t announced their plans for the space program, and crucially whether they will continue the Artemis project, which is supposed to deliver astronauts to the moon in 2024. But the entire Artemis program needs a lift, and the SLS was supposed to be the space delivery vehicle of the future.

Paul M. Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of How to Die in Space.

Next Up

NASA Has a New Supersonic Jet and It’s Super-Quiet

There’s more to NASA than space. The agency’s full acronym stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I’ve covered plenty of interesting stories in the space sector, so it’s time to the aeronautics side some love too.

The James Webb Space Telescope Launches!

Finally! It was initially proposed way back in 1998 and named the James Webb Space Telescope in 2002. After a decade of delays and over 10 billion dollars past its original budget, NASA’s next great observatory finally launched from the European Space Agency’s Guiana Space Centre in South America.

Here Comes Artemis I (Rescheduled, again)

NASA's long-awaited Artemis 1 uncrewed moon mission and next generation of spacecraft has been delayed for a second time. The rocket was initially scheduled to launch on Aug. 29, 2022, at 8:33 AM ET, but was delayed due to an issue with the engine bleed. Watch Space Launch Live: Artemis-1 on Science Channel to see the moment of liftoff. (Launch Date Pending) (Updated Sept 7, 11:00AM)

6 Months in Space Permanently Ages Bones by 10 Years

Astronauts on long-term space missions can experience bone loss equivalent to two decades of aging. New research suggests more weight-bearing exercises in space could help offset that decline.

South Korea Joins Space Race by Sending its First Spacecraft to the Moon

South Korea is launching its first lunar probe to the moon on August 4th. The Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO) or Danuri, developed by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) is being launched to study moon carters, magnetic fields, and surface weathering.

How Exoplanets Became the Next Big Thing in Astronomy

To date, we know of over 5,000 planets outside the solar system. And astronomers suspect that there may be *checks notes* around a trillion more in our galaxy alone. The search for exoplanets is one of the hottest topics in astronomy, with expensive telescopes and giant collaborations all searching for the holy grail of the 21st century: an Earth 2.0, a habitable world like our own.

How Astronomers Use a Trick of Gravity to See the Most Distant Objects in the Universe

Let’s say you’re an astronomer (work with me here) and you want to take a picture of something incredibly, deeply far away. You know, the typical business of astronomy.

A Guide to this August’s Best Astronomy Attractions

Learn more about the exciting things happening in the night sky this month! From the rings of Saturn to the most popular meteor shower of the year, August 2022 has us stargazing all month.

Why Astronomers Care About Super-Old Galaxies?

A long time ago, our universe was dark.It was just 380,000 years after the big bang. Up until that age, our entire observable cosmos was less than a millionth of its present size. All the material in the universe was compressed into that tiny volume, forcing it to heat up and become a plasma. But as the universe expanded and cooled, eventually the plasma changed into a neutral gas as the first atoms formed.

What We’ve Already Learned From James Webb? (Hint: it’s a lot)

That was worth the wait. Just a quick handful of months since its historic launch on Christmas Day, the James Webb Space Telescope has flown to its observing position, unfolded its delicate instruments and ultra-sized mirror, and run through a suite of checks and alignments and calibrations. The team at NASA behind the telescopes released their first batch of images from the science runs, and besides being gorgeous, they're powerful.

Related To: