A critical test-firing of NASA’s Space Launch System moon rocket in Mississippi ended just 67 seconds after it began Saturday, well short of a planned eight-minute burn that was supposed to clear the way for the space agency to finally ship the rocket’s core stage to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for launch preparations.
The SLS core stage, built by Boeing, lit its four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines for the first time at 5:27 p.m. EST (4:27 p.m. CST; 2227 GMT) Saturday for a burn that was expected to last more than eight minutes, the culmination of a year-long series of checkouts at the Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi.
Fastened to the mammoth B-2 test stand at Stennis, the 212-foot-tall (98-meter) SLS core stage throttled up to full power after the four main engines lit at 120-millisecond intervals.
The engines, leftovers from the space shuttle program, built up to 1.6 million pounds of thrust, making Saturday’s hot fire test the most powerful rocket firing at the Stennis Space Center since NASA tested the Apollo-era Saturn 5 moon rocket on the same stand in the 1960s.
But after rumbling to life and generating a ground-shaking thunder for a little more than a minute, the RS-25 engines cut off on command of the rocket’s on-board computer system, which detected an unspecified fault in one of the powerplants.
Engineers were tracing the cause of the premature engine shutdown Saturday night, but NASA officials had few details on what might have triggered the early end to the test-firing.
“I know not everybody is feeling as happy as we otherwise could because we wanted to get eight minutes of a hot fire, and we got over a minute,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Before the test-firing Saturday, NASA officials said preparations were on track for the first test flight of the Space Launch System at the end of 2021. It was not immediately how the premature shutdown of the SLS engines Saturday might impact that schedule, although it will certainly add more risk to it.
“We got lots of data that we’re going to go through, and be able to sort through, and get to a point where we can make a determination as to whether or not launching in 2021 is a possibility or not,” Bridenstine said. “While today was not everything we hoped it would be, this was an important day.”
The outgoing NASA chief, who will leave his post Wednesday with the end of the Trump administration, said engineers gathered important data on the performance of the rocket despite the cutoff of the engines. The Space Launch System is a major piece of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972.
The SLS will launch NASA’s Orion crew capsule to send astronauts to the vicinity of the moon, NASA plans to construct a mini-space station to serve as a research outpost and waypoint for crews traveling between Earth and the lunar surface. The Orion spacecraft will link up with a descent craft in lunar orbit, where astronauts will float into the lander to head for the moon’s…