Photo by: NASA

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

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 and SpaceX are Going on a Date, and We're All Invited

Save the date--On May 27th, if everything goes as planned, a rocket will launch from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Watch SPACE LAUNCH LIVE: AMERICA RETURNS TO SPACE on Discovery and Science Channel starting at 2P ET.

NASA’s Plan for Returning to the Moon

NASA is planning to land the first woman and next man on the moon in 2024. Through a US government-funded human spaceflight program known as Artemis, there may be human footprints on the south pole region of the lunar surface in the very near future. From understanding the Artemis Program to the Gateway, let’s explore the lunar details.

Looking Down: NASA Astronauts Share Images from Space

From "Space Selfies" and birthday celebrations, to beautiful images of Earth, NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley shared tons content while up at the International Space Station.

10 Facts About NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 Splashdown

Here's everything you need to know about NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley's return home from the International Space Station on Sunday, August 2.

Countdown To Launch: NASA's SpaceX Crew-1 Mission

After a successful NASA and SpaceX Demo-2 Mission, the first operational mission of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon with four astronauts is targeted for November 15, 2020. Get ready to launch! Watch it live on SPACE LAUNCH LIVE: CREW-1 LIFT OFF starting at 5P ET on Discovery and Science Channcel or stream it live on Discovery GO.

Watch NASA Astronauts Return Home Live on Aug 2

NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are scheduled to arrive home from space on Sunday, August 2. Watch SPACE LAUNCH LIVE: SPLASHDOWN on Discovery and Science Channel starting at 1PM ET.

First US Commercial Crew Port Relocation to Air Live on NASA TV

On Monday, April 5, another first will occur for commercial space flight. For a look back at Crew-1's initial journey to the ISS, catch up on SPACE LAUNCH LIVE streaming now on discovery+.

Meet the Not-So-Secret Space Airplane

The United States Space Force may have a somewhat silly name, but it's very, very real. And it just launched a semi-secret mission into space.

Large Rocket Debris Impacts Earth Off African Coast

The fourth largest piece of space debris ever re-entered the earth's atmosphere yesterday and made a splash just off the coast of Africa. Narrowly missing some major landmarks in its path, this piece of a rocket could have caused some major damage.

First Week Complete for Crew-1 Astronauts

NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, along with Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched in a new Crew Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket on November 15, 2020, at 7:27P ET from the NASA Kennedy Launch Complex 39A. After a 27-hour journey, the spacecraft docked with the ISS on November 16, 2020, at 11:01P ET. Let’s see what the astronauts of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission have been up to since their arrival to the station!
Related To: