In a fiery demonstration of power, the four engines of NASA’s next mighty moon rocket fired in synchrony for the first time on Saturday and, by design, went nowhere.
The test started smoothly, with white billowing clouds shooting out of the test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. But then the engines shut down about 1 minute, 15 seconds later — far shorter than the planned eight-minute firing that was to simulate what the engines will do during an actual launch of the Space Launch System.
During the NASA TV broadcast, the agency’s commentators did not explain what went wrong, but N. Wayne Hale Jr., a former manager of NASA’s space shuttle program, suggested on Twitter that it was a significant problem.
Well MCF was not a call this ascent flight director ever wanted to hear: Major Component Failure is detected by the SSME controller.
— Wayne Hale (@waynehale) January 16, 2021
This was a ground test to verify that everything is working as it should. The booster stage stayed securely held down at a test stand.
The same booster is scheduled to head off to space in November in an uncrewed test flight that is to go to the moon and beyond. But the problem encountered during Saturday’s test could add to the delays in the development of this rocket, known as the Space Launch System.
NASA has spent years and billions of dollars developing this rocket, which is frequently abbreviated as S.L.S.. Eventually, it is to take astronauts to moon and perhaps farther out into the solar system someday.
The test fire occurred on Saturday around 5:27 p.m. Eastern time.
Earlier in the afternoon the agency shifted the schedule forward by one hour, to 4 p.m., saying after it had loaded the rocket with propellant that preparation was ahead of schedule.
However, the updated time frame was then delayed, and Alex Cagnola, a NASA engineer, said that the test conductors were “working through a few issues on the stand,” without describing the cause of the delay or how long it would last.
Ultimately, the test occurred almost 30 minutesafter the originally scheduled time of 5 p.m. Eastern. A news conference is scheduled to follow about two hours after the test.
The Space Launch System is the 21st-century equivalent of the Saturn V that took NASA astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. Although there are many other rockets available today, they are too small to launch spacecraft that can carry people to the moon. (A possible exception is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, but a human lunar mission would require two separate launches carrying pieces that would then dock together in space or head separately to the moon.)
The Falcon Heavy can lift up to 64 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. The initial version of the S.L.S. is a bit more powerful, capable of lifting 70 metric tons, and future versions of the rocket will be able to loft up to 130 metric tons, more than the rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts to the moon.
Although the Space Launch System will be expensive — up to $2 billion a launch for a rocket that can be used only once — Congress has provided steadfast financial support for it so far. Supporters maintain that it is important for the government to own and operate its own powerful deep-space rocket, and pieces of the system are built by companies across the country, spreading the economic benefits to many states and congressional districts.
The Space Launch System is a key component for Artemis, the program to take NASA astronauts back to the moon in the coming years. Although President Trump pledged to make the trip by the end of 2024, few expected that NASA would actually meet that timeline, even before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. was elected.
When NASA announced its plans for the Space Launch System in 2011, the first launch was scheduled for 2017. As is typical for new rocket designs, the development ran into technical difficulties, such as the need to develop procedures for welding together pieces of metal as large as those in the rocket. NASA also paused work on the rocket for a time last year during the early stages of coronavirus outbreak.
As the date of the first launch slipped several times, the price tag rose. NASA has so far spent more than $10 billion on the rocket and more than $16 billion on the Orion capsule where the astronauts will sit.
In an audit in 2018, NASA’s inspector general blamed poor performance by Boeing, the main contractor building the booster stage, for much of the delay. Another report by the inspector general in 2020 said NASA “continues to struggle managing SLS program costs and schedule.”
The test fire is part of what NASA calls the green run, a series of tests of the fully assembled booster stage. The same booster that just was just ignited will be used for the first flight to space, so engineers wanted to ensure that it works as designed before launching it.
Several other rockets are under development, and some may be close to their first trips to space.
The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, may launch its Vulcan Centaur in the fourth quarter of the year. The Vulcan Centaur is the successor to Atlas V, a longtime workhorse for launching military and NASA satellites. However, that rocket uses the Russian-built RD-180 engines, and Congress has grown increasingly leery of relying on technology from a country that is often considered an adversary.
Blue Origin, the rocket company started by Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, has also been developing a reusable rocket called New Glenn that would compete with both Vulcan Centaur and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. (Blue Origin will also earn money from each Vulcan Centaur launch; that booster uses BE-4 engines made by Blue Origin.)
Most intriguing is the gigantic Starship rocket under development by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. When mounted on top of a huge booster stage, it would dwarf the Space Launch System, yet would be entirely reusable like a passenger jet. It is designed to take people to Mars, and SpaceX has also won a contract to adapt it for taking NASA astronauts to the surface of the moon.
Mr. Musk’s engineers have been conducting atmospheric test flights of Starship prototypes at a site in South Texas along the Gulf Coast. During the most recent test, which was livestreamed on the internet, the prototype rocket accomplished a number of technical goals before coming down too fast during its landing and exploding in a spectacular blast. The company appears to be preparing for its next test flight in the days or weeks to come.
A successful hot-fire test would allow the booster stage to be taken to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That will set the stage for the Space Launch System’s first journey to orbit and beyond, perhaps later this year.
That will be a mission with no astronauts aboard called Artemis 1. The launch will carry the Orion module, as well as a variety of small CubeSats, on a course to the moon. The capsule will orbit the moon several times, much as in NASA’s Apollo 8 mission, before returning to Earth and splashing down in a water landing.
Success of that mission could set the stage for the first astronaut flight in Orion and eventually result in a moon landing.