Life Science NASA’s monster ‘megarocket’ test goes well but far from great

NASA’s monster ‘megarocket’ test goes well but far from great

NASA's four-engine monster makes its way to the test site. Photo: NASA
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NASA’s deep space exploration rocket built by Boeing has briefly ignited all four engines of its behemoth core stage for the first time, but the crucial test was cut short.

Mounted in a test facility at NASA’s Stennis Space Centre in Mississippi, the Space Launch System’s nearly 65 metre tall core stage roared to life for just over a minute – well short of the roughly four minutes engineers needed to stay on track for the rocket’s first launch in November this year.

“Today was a good day,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a press conference after the test, adding “we got lots of data that we’re going to be able to sort through” to determine if a do-over is needed and whether a November 2021 debut launch date is still possible.

The ‘hot fire’ engine test was a vital step for the space agency and contractor Boeing before a debut unmanned launch later this year under NASA’s Artemis program, the Trump administration’s push to return US astronauts to the moon by 2024.

It was unclear whether Boeing and NASA would have to repeat the test, a prospect that could push the debut launch into 2022. NASA’s SLS program manager John Honeycutt, told reporters the turnaround time for another hot fire test could be roughly one month.

To simulate internal conditions of a real liftoff, the rocket’s four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines ignited for roughly one minute and 15 seconds, consuming millions of litres of propellants on NASA’s largest test stand, a massive facility towering 35 stories tall.

The expendable super heavy-lift spacecraft is three years behind schedule and nearly $3 billion over budget. Critics have long argued for NASA to retire the rocket’s shuttle-era core technologies, which have launch costs of $1 billion or more per mission, in favour of newer commercial alternatives that promise lower costs.

NASA and Boeing engineers have stayed on a ten-month schedule for the Green Run “despite having significant adversity this year,” Boeing’s John Shannon told reporters this week, citing five tropical storms and a hurricane that hit Stennis, as well as a three-month closure after some engineers tested positive for the coronavirus in March.